Yet another 2019 release from guitar legend Keaggy and yet another where collaboration brings out different facets of his talents, while adding someone else’s to the mix. This one is more polished and Boston-like.

Label:     Independent / Strobie
Time:     11 Tracks / 46 minutes

The more I listen to Keaggy’s work – and particularly his way of working –the more I get the impression that he is on one hand an introvert – he seems to shy away from press interviews, and works from the comfort of his home studio – but he is always keen musically to work with others, because of the way it stretches him and saves him from repeat sounds.

Already this year we have had the instrumental jams of Bucket List with heavyweight secular session musicians and Cappadocia, another exquisitely delicate instrumental work with Jeff Johnson (for me, just the best of the three).

Illumination is very different; Rex Paul Schnelle calls it prog-rock, while I’d go for AOR/pop-rock, as the structures are very conventional and the songs only average four minutes each.

What instantly sets this one apart from many of Keaggy’s previous song-based albums is the richness of the production. Schnelle (who has co-written, played most instruments, shared vocals and produced this) has a deft touch with the mix. If other releases are stained glass works, with this one, the glass has been lifted up against the sky to let the light flood through it from behind. There is a fresher, more nuanced sound to lift some tracks and more separation of the elements (hear the clarity of the twelve-string in “Calling us Home”).

The songs are a mix of co-writes, a cover and four Keaggy classics, which are the strongest songs here, which makes me think of Keaggy as the creative force and Schnelle as the production master.

The difference that he has most strikingly made is the force of harmony on many of the choruses, bringing a Boston / Foreigner / Journey (aren’t they all the same band?!) vibe to the songs. This is noticeable on the opening two tracks, especially the superb “Calling Us Home,” although there is also a touch of ‘80s Yes in the latter.

It’s not perfect: “Nothing can Separate Us” tries to fit that verse from Romans into the music, but it’s a clunky fit.

The classic tracks are always welcome, especially a rockier version of “Time” (with tweaked lyrics) which starts with jazzier chords than usual and sees keys echo the riff ethereally in the background. The version Keaggy recorded with 2nd Chapter of Acts lasted some 16 minutes (from memory) while this is a far tauter affair at less than five. The solos really should have had an extra minute or two before the fade-out, though.

By contrast, “Let Everything Else Go,” which crowned the 1981 release Town to Town, is piano-based and so acts as a palate-cleanser between guitar tracks here and gives its own guitar break at the end more force.

Strings add a whole new depth to the end of another ‘80s song, “Spend my Life with You,” and a new guitar solo adds to the freshness.

These old tracks particularly show the lyrical breadth that is so often missing in the factory-music culture that CCM has turned into. While there are still songs here that address God (but thankfully in normal language, rather than jargon) there are also others that view the world from a Christian viewpoint – “Time” talks of the new order, when time will be superseded; “Calling us Home” talks of God’s wider plan (“You‘ve restored everything”);  the fluid “You Never Know” is set on a bus – or take an approach to faith that speaks of hope, which seems to be a golden thread here as Keaggy anticipates seeing God face to face.
This is a very solid ‘80s flavoured release: strong tunes, worthwhile lyrics, memorable hooks, a beautiful mix, meaty guitars and technical excellence all combining to get those endorphins flowing.

Derek Walker