The last time Ernie Haase & Signature Sound released an album of mostly new songs, they still had the vocal lineup that took them to the top. In the over three years since, lead singer Ryan Seaton and bass singer Tim Duncan have both left (replaced by, respectively, Devin McGlamery and Ian Owens), they’ve added a four-piece live band, and they’ve moved from Gaither Music Group to their own label.

Lately, when Southern Gospel fans talk about the group, discussions tend to center less around the music and more around whether the new lineup is as good as the Haase / Seaton / Anderson / Duncan lineup. That sort of thing is rarely good for a group, because there will always be people arguing both sides of the question. They needed this album to change the conversation; they needed it to be either exceptionally good, or exceptionally different.

Whether Here We Are Again is exceptionally good is a somewhat subjective question—but there is absolutely no doubt that it is exceptionally different.

Several weeks ago, video clips of “Any Other Man” surfaced. The song’s sound was compared to everything from modern country music to Third Day-esque Southern Rock. No, the whole album doesn’t sound like that, but several songs do trend in that direction. “Singing in the Midnight Hour” and “I’ve Been Here Before” both tend in that direction. “Everytime” doesn’t exactly fit in that box—but then, it doesn’t necessarily fit into any box. Much like “Happy Birthday Anniversary Too,” you’ll either love it or hate it.

Though most of the album’s songs are new, there are three covers. Ian Owens sang “I Believe” during his eight-year run with The Imperials; Signature Sound has been using the song to introduce him to audiences, and undoubtedly it’s here due to audience demand. “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” is another song often associated with the Imperials; Signature Sound’s puts a distinctively unique twist on the song.

Of the three covers, the one that may well receive the most attention is “Stand By Me.” Yes, this is the same “Stand By Me” with which original bass singer Tim Duncan sung his way into fans’ hearts. It’s the same “Stand By Me” which introduced Signature Sound choreography, and their multi-year multi-encore concert closer. Quite simply, it’s the sort of song that you simply don’t remake with the rookie unless you’re absolutely certain that he can tote the mail. Given the vast difference between Duncan’s and Owens’ voice types, Owens does far better on this song than anyone might expect.

“Love Carried the Cross” is the lone ballad. Perhaps it’s not the next “We Shall See Jesus” or “Oh What a Savior”—few songs are—but it is one of the album’s strongest vocal performances and is sure to bring consistent standing ovations in live concerts.

Baritone singer Doug Anderson can always be counted on for an album highlight. He comes through with the album’s strongest performance, “Sometimes I Wonder.”

“Here We Are Again,” and “Thankful” sound like a cross between the Bill Gaither Trio (melodically) and a mellow Gaither Vocal Band (stylistically). They’re less the next “Reason Enough” (though there’s a resemblance) and more the next “Jesus, We Just Want to Thank You” or “We Are So Blessed.”

Back in the days when the Happy Goodmans, Kingsmen, Gold City, and others carried a live band, studio musicians arranged the songs so that bands could essentially reproduce the album live. This changed as Southern Gospel concerts became increasingly soundtrack-dependent. Here We Are Again reverses that trend; with the notable exception of the orchestration on “Love Carried the Cross,” this is largely an album that Signature Sound’s talented live band could easily reproduce live. (Note: The review was written before the interview was complete. In the interview, Haase confirmed that the tracks were arranged with the band in mind.)

Ernie Haase co-wrote eight of the nine new songs. (The exception, “Singing in the Midnight Hour,” was written by Dianne Wilkinson.) This leaves the album reflecting his heart and focus more closely than any of the group’s previous albums. If Southern Gospel groups were local churches, the Dove Brothers would be the high-energy Independent Baptist church, the Booth Brothers would be the local Southern Baptist church where you think as much as you cry, and the Freemans would be the holy-rolling Pentecostal church around the corner. Ernie Haase & Signature Sound, meanwhile, would be the local seeker-sensitive mega-church. Their concerts have had this focus from their launch; this is the first album that has fully caught up lyrically to their live programs.

Granted, there is at least a distant possibility that this album’s stylistic innovations could be a total flop. But it’s as possible that this could be the future of Southern Gospel. That might sound surprising, so let’s pull in some historical perspective. Early Southern Gospel concerts featured a pianist and four vocalists. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, groups like the Happy Goodmans and Kingsmen revolutionized Southern Gospel and ushered in a new era by borrowing the live country band’s format of a pianist, bass guitarist, drummer, and steel guitar / utility musician. In the decades since, modern country bands now feature a prominent electric guitarist. Could Signature Sound be again borrowing from the live country band format, and pulling a page directly out of the Happy Goodmans / Kingsmen playbook? Will it work?

Only time will tell, but one thing is certain. Conversations about Ernie Haase & Signature Sound are, once again, going to be about the music.

Traditional or Progressive: Everything under the sun!

Radio Single Picks: “Sometimes I Wonder,” “Love Carried the Cross,” “Here We Are Again”

Album Rating: 4.5 stars

Credits: Group members: Ernie Haase, Devin McGlamery, Doug Anderson, Ian Owens. • Review copy provided. • Song list: Swing Low Sweet Chariot; Singing In the Midnight Hour; Here We Are Again; I Believe; I’ve Been Here Before; You Are Welcome Here; Love Carried the Cross; Stand By Me; Everytime; Sometimes I Wonder; Thankful; Any Other Man.