From the Heart of Kutless…
With two million records sold across its first five efforts, Oregon rock band Kutless had already made a strong name for itself. But the late 2009 release of It Is Well, the quintet’s second worship set, continues to be a complete game changer. On one hand, the edgy act’s first No. 1 adult contemporary single, "What Faith Can Do," is remarkable, as are the rave reviews ("Cleverly arranged covers, soul-catching originals" —Christian Music Today; "Perfectly fitted guitar work" —allmusic; "No tracks worth skipping" —Jesus Freak Hideout). But even more important is how this batch of songs reflects the ways these men are growing in spirit, in creativity, and into one of today’s most exciting, thoughtful rock-meets-worship collectives.
Indicative of the band’s deep sense of awareness, Kutless approached the making of It Is Well with several questions: Should we make another worship record just because the first one was popular? Does the world need another worship album? Can we do something unique? Front man Jon Micah Sumrall says it was his pastor who gave clarity to the matter—in a conversation that began when he asked the singer, "So, when are you guys going to do another worship record?"
"I told him how we didn’t want to have the wrong heart behind our next step. Then he asked what our goal was, which is always to reach as many people as we can with Christ’s love," explains Sumrall. "So, he asked which album had helped us do that best, the answer being our first worship record, Strong Tower, without a doubt. His last question was obvious by that point: Why wouldn’t you do something like that again?"
As that tension resolved, Kutless bass player Dave Luetkenhoelter says, "We let go of some of the expectations among ourselves and also realized the heart determines what is worship, not necessarily musical style . . . This isn’t about who we are but who God is. We decided to just go in, make the music that was on our hearts, and see what it sounded like when it was done."
It Is Well sounds like a band coming into its own, discovering that compelling place where its originally more aggressive playing stays relevant as it is tempered by classic song-crafting sensibilities and learning to pour the right energy into the right moments. The opening title track is a prime example, a Millennial generation’s electrified take on Horatio Spafford’s 1800s hymn that manages to respect both eras. Kutless guitarist Nick De Partee credits album co-producer Dave Lubben (also a worship leader) with bringing out the best in each player.
"Dave made sure that Jon Micah meant every word he sang and that we meant every note we played," he says. "People can hear that type of thing, whether they are fully aware of it or not."
The media has certainly noticed the excellence pulsing through each cut on It Is Well. Hailing the group sing-along (rounded out by drummer Jeff Gilbert and guitarist James Mead) that launches a muscular cover of Passion worshiper Charlie Hall’s "Give Us Clean Hands," Christian Music Today says Kutless gives the song "new life and an exciting way for worship leaders to interpret this tune." Other modern praises—a Keith Green medley ("Redeemer"), Vineyard’s "Hungry," and an amped up "God of Wonders"—are likewise elevated by the band’s appreciable vigor.
As moving and memorable as those reinterpretations are, the original compositions on It Is Well are an even greater testament to the maturation happening within Kutless. New pop and rock radio singles "Everything I Need" (written by Sumrall and Lubben) and "Remember Me" (by De Partee and John Howard), possess lyrical and stylistic strengths that should instantly resonate with intended audiences. The former’s 3/4 time signature and soaring vocals are comparable to Chris Tomlin, while the latter, told from the striking perspective of the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus, grabs the listener in a gritty sort of Nickelback way. And CCM says it best when describing the De Partee/Phil Wickham-penned "Amazed" as "a slow-to-mid-tempo anthem that holds a melody so good, you wonder if it’s an established worship song that you just happened to miss."
Beyond the band’s brightening internal artistic merits, it’s inspiring to hear the Kutless members talk about what they are learning outside of their own instincts—the lessons that transcend any given genre to improve both creative and ministry impact. They’ve watched gospel-based acts like Israel Houghton and aspired to bring similar passion and dedicated musicianship to their own rock concerts. They’ve spoken with recent tour mates Casting Crowns, adopting its practice of walking through the empty performance halls ahead of show time, touching the seats and praying for those who will be in attendance. And there were plenty of insights gained from working with veteran producer Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, MercyMe) on It Is Well’s standout hit, "What Faith Can Do," written by outside friends Scott Davis and Scott Krippayne.
"That song came in at the last minute, and we spent three days in Nashville tracking it with Brown, who is such a gentleman and a brilliant musician," Luetkenhoelter recalls. "Kind of like what Dave Lubben did, he would ask—Is that the best you can do?—after every take and really helped us understand how to make the tune resonate with the listener."
Sumrall likes how "What Faith Can Do" supports the worship theme throughout It Is Well and felt from the start it was the right song for Kutless in this season, an affirmation of the band’s decision to make the music God placed on its heart. It certainly addresses the ultimate goal of reaching the world with a message of hope; industry tracking indicates the tune was making more than eight million impressions per week while atop the charts, where more of the album’s stirring compositions are likely headed.
"We’re getting a flood of e-mail from people about how the song is impacting their lives," concludes Jon Micah. "Our continuing prayer is for the entire record to point to Christ and remind us all that there is more to worship than worship albums. We must live a life of worship."
Genre: Christian Rock
Members: Jon Micah Sumrall, James Mead, Dave Luetkenhoelter, Nick Departee
Current Record Label: BEC Recordings
Albums: Kutless (2002), Sea of Faces (2004), Strong Tower (2005), Hearts of the Innocent (2006), To Know That You're Alive (2008), It Is Well (2009), This Is Christmas EP (2011), Believer (2012), The Worship Collection (2013)