Throughout the golden age of Christian alternative music in the 1990s, in the middle of a Tooth & Nail Records roster filled almost solely with noisy variations of punk and hardcore music, there always existed a curiosity that seemed strangely out of place -- a one-man electronic pop factory called Joy Electric. The brainchild of Ronnie Martin, older brother of Starflyer 59's Jason Martin, Joy Electric's 1994 debut LP, Melody, was the 20th release on Tooth & Nail. However, with its saccharine pop melodies, sugary sweet vocals, and album packaging featuring candy canes and red flowers, Joy Electric was either a punchline amongst the punk kids, or something so left-field that it was actually the most alternative thing out there. Fifteen years and eleven full-length studio albums later (plus numerous EPs, collections, and side releases), Ronnie seemed to call it a musical career, relocating to Ohio to take a position as a full-time lead pastor. Ronnie's writing output has exceeded his musical output and most fans understood that 2012's Kickstarter-backed Dwarf Mountain Alphabet was likely to be the end of a great career.
Then, out of nowhere, came a late 2021 announcement that Ronnie had signed with Velvet Blue Music and would be releasing a solo album under his own name. Although this is not under the moniker of Joy Electric, it is clearly a natural successor, with the same electronic sensibilities and pop framework--but with as much joy and thrilling energy as Ronnie has displayed in multiple decades. Never one to skimp on interesting titles, the Psalm 110:3-inspired From the Womb of the Morning, The Dew of Your Youth Will Be Yours is a brilliant and exciting return to an artist that I had forgotten how much I loved.
The opening of "Sing Among the Branches" brings a warmth and perfect familiarity, with electronic synth textures creating a feeling of awakening into a glistening landscape, bathed by the sun rays--until the first digital snare hits and the fury of the tom-heavy drums enters, and it's immediately clear that this is not the analog-only, minimal and very contained percussive sound of most of Joy Electric's late catalog. Instead, the massive digital drums are prominent among the huge washes of synth and stacked, echo-drenched vocals to create a sound that is exponentially bigger than anything that the generally minimal-focused Joy Electric ever created. It's not just the sound, but the songwriting that is finally free from his self-imposed Joy Electric rulebook; Ronnie is now free to write extended songs with lengthy intros, big bridges (the wild, progressive-style drum fills in the midsection of "The Daughters of Song Are Brought Low" are arresting and a completely new element for Ronnie's work), and soaring outros, some of which (the title track being the best example) are the album's best moments.
Other than the digital drum sounds, the album is made fully with the Moog One synthesizer, a well-loved mega-synth allowing for almost any conceivable sound, and Ronnie uses his new tool to find new ways to communicate audio beauty. At times warm and inviting like shining stars, at times abrupt and alarming, the sounds are diverse and creative throughout. Well-known producer Bob Hoag (who previously worked with Foxglove Hunt, one of Ronnie's best side projects) handles the mix, blanketing the landscape with walls of synthesizers, towers of shimmering reverb, and a wall of prominent drums and vocal layers--all such an improvement from a Joy Electric sound that was becoming much more dull and redundant since its 2002-03 peak.
Devotees of the Old Testament will recognize that all seven song titles are based on what Ronnie describes as the "sometimes shocking beauty" of the Psalms and other Old Testament books. Lyrically, Joy Electric had a tendency to be a bit silly and curious, relying on a lot of fairy tale and sugary food imagery; but here the lyrics are consistently on a grand scale--not devotional or worship music to be sure, but soundly based on Scriptures with a lyrical extension of the musical expansiveness. It feels like only Ronnie can make a simple chorus like "Oh, sing among the branches!" or "Then shall your light break forth like the dawn!" (both song titles) seem no natural and yet so grand and anthemic. At seven songs totaling just over a half-hour, the album feels like a perfect length -- easy to consume in one listening session without boredom or redundancy, not so short that it fails to make a lasting impact.
Ronnie has been forever linked to his brother Jason and Starflyer 59 since their early 1990s days together in Dance House Children (and even earlier than that in Morella's Forest, whose sole 1988 recording was recovered and released on Velvet Blue for the first time ever in 2021), and the parallels of the last 12 months are striking. Both Starflyer and Joy Electric made albums in their late days on Tooth & Nail that were mostly not bad, but often uninspired and longing for the grand and bold sounds of their peak. Like Starflyer last year, Ronnie sounds completely reborn on his Velvet Blue debut, releasing his best work in maybe 20 years. From the Womb of the Morning, The Dew of Your Youth Will Be Yours is danceable, epic, catchy, diverse, and backed by gigantic digital drum sounds the likes of which have been missing from Ronnie's music since the mid-1990s. From the Womb of the Morning… is a half-hour that burrows into your head and refuses to leave, and it's all I've wanted to listen to since its release. It may still be the off-center electronic pop that always made Ronnie the odd man out in a roster of heavy and punk music, but I challenge anyone to listen and not be immediately captivated by the catchy grandeur of it all.- Review date: 3/6/22, written by Evan Dickens of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Velvet Blue Music
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