A guitar plays its simple descending melody within a restless rumble of bass, drums, and warm keys, setting the stage for what is to come. Within a minute, we are seamlessly transported into the Jamaican dub of “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the Messianic sound-world envisioned by Remnant Eleven.
Indeed, it seems the unlikely culture of Jamaica has inspired much recent ‘Jewish music’ (cf. Matisyahu, Moshav). So is reggae and dub threatening to replace the more traditional templates of Eastern European folk, and, I don’t know, 'what have you' (by 'what have you' I mean 'Bar Mitzvah disco')? Is all the reverb soaking and rock-steady a passing craze or is it a welcome sea change? And, does it matter? Not really - it does not matter.
Remnant Eleven's bio says that they make “Messianic fusion.” In a sense, I suppose all Messianic music, if not all Jewish music, began as a kind of “fusion,” from Lamb in the early 70’s to today. However, in the case of this band – a group local to Philadelphia and members of Beth Yeshua congregation – the point of the label is that their excellence and energy make genre boundaries mostly irrelevant.
Anyway, back to the disc. “By the Rivers of Babylon” (which in an earlier recording was the single “Psalm 137,” which you can download here), brings out R11's collective musicality, led by Juan Argueta and Christopher Holden’s vocals. The following “B’yamim” suggests disco-funk, Carlos Santana, and even Shlomo Carlebach. The urgency comes through as they cry out in Hebrew and English: “again to be heard in Jerusalem/the voice of the bridegroom, the voice of the Bride/these are the days and now is the time.” That track almost seems to end too quickly, at less than three minutes.
A touch of the Caribbean-via-Matisyahu sound system then comes back raw on “Silver and Gold,” which in the bridge deftly climbs towards a wholly different movement, as if to reach the heights of a Mute Math (or we could say, for our elder's sake, the Police) except in a Middle Eastern motif, all revealing the soul of a band that wants to praise HaShem. “Poor Rebellious Soul” mines soul-jazz territories (and many other lands) for all their worth, suggesting something of the band’s native Philadelphia, as Christopher Holden’s crisp tenor comes correct in worship of Adonai. “Hava Nasurf,” which I imagine could have started as a joke, turns out to be pure gold: a surprising and almost flawlessly executed instrumental version of Hava Nagila, arranged by keyboardist Jason Rich. The track offers much to enjoy between Argueta and Holden’s guitars, Rich’s ecstatic organ, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Salkind’s accordion (and bass, which I’m guessing he didn’t play at the same time), and Sam Shooster’s frenetic drumming – this is what one finds all through the CD. Segueing into the second half of the CD is the dynamic jazz-rock of “Beit,” culling some of its lyrics from Psalms. “Wine Cellar” gracefully matches Solomonic poetry to a felt blues not completely unlike that of John Mayer. Finally, closing out is the quite decent return of reggae with “Not Be Moved” and the jam blues of “Zeal.”
Overall, the sound has something of a live feel, with slight bumps on the twisty paths taken by the songs. This just adds character; in fact, practically every track here is proof of just what a remarkably strong debut this is. Indeed, as they continue to grow, focusing their energies and their song craft, they may be used by God to influence a whole generation for His glory. This seems to be in line with their vision: “We are all the sons of the promise, like the stars in the sky/ And though we’re scattered to so many nations/ God will raise us up high…”
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(The writer of this review would like to mention that he has never met the dudes in the band, though he is hoping for lots of free t-shirts and stuff)