When you've cut your teeth cutting live albums -- and have single-handedly become a one-stop source for multicultural church music -- five years is a long time to be away from the game. In the case of gospel-praise supergroup Israel & New Breed, that's not really a problem. Its frontman, Israel Houghton, has kept busy all along, exploring the solo route with two albums, The Power of One and Love God. Love People, while continuing to resource churches for new material. Plus, it's not like the band was twiddling its thumbs: they accompanied the bandleader wherever he went -- on tour with Chris Tomlin, on-stage at the Grammys, or back home at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church. It's at the Houston megachurch that Israel and the gang reassembled for Jesus at the Center, a double-disc recording in the spirit of the classics New Season and Live from Another Level -- the top-selling albums that made the group a household name in gospel.
Like efforts past, Jesus consists of two main movements. The first one is a praise-fest featuring a string of high-octane numbers, running the gamut from corporate choral praise ("Jesus the Same," "More Than Enough") and contemporary gospel ("No Turning Back") to Latin electro-pop (the Pitbull-esque "Te Amo"), and even a gospel-ska hybrid ("Rez Power"). The vibe isn't always congregational -- "Te Amo," in particular, is more a dance party than a praise party -- but that's merely Israel getting the audience primed for something a little deeper. The turning point is the pop ballad "Jesus at the Center," a rousing number giving way to the second movement, a stretch of worshipful, impassioned slow-burners that segue right into one another. This is familiar territory for the group, which makes it all the harder to pinpoint which songs from Jesus at the Center will join the ranks of "Friend of God" and "You Are Good" in the canon of cross-cultural praise. Aside from the title track -- which some churches have had in rotation since its inclusion in the collective's 2011 retrospective, Decade -- only time will tell how the new material will fare with churchgoers. After all, they're the gatekeepers who continue to give Israel & New Breed a reason to sing.