japanese import

REVIEW: Minoru Niihara – One (1989)

MINORU NIIHARA – One (1989 Triad)

Original Loudness vocalist Minoru Niihara was let go in 1988 so they could have a stab at a success with an American singer.  While they went their way (and did not cross over onto the charts as they hoped), Niihara recorded his first solo album appropriately titled One.  He worked at Cherokee studios in Hollywood, where there must have been a lot of rock stars hanging out.  The credits on One include:  Mark Slaughter, Reb Beach, Doug Aldrich, the rhythm section from Journey (Steve Smith and Ross Valory), Kal Swan, David Glen Eisley, and the Tower of Power horns!

That being said, you might expect a straightforward hard rock album right out of 1989 like so many you remember from that year.  You’d be partly right.  However the lyrics are mostly in Japanese, and while the intent might have been to make a straight-ahead commercial rock record, it goes a bit sideways on some tracks.

It sounds like some of the same opening sounds as on Alice Cooper’s Trash album (also 1989) are used on first instrumental “Overture”.  Then it goes soft rock, with guitar strings tinkling like a fragile piece of glass, backed by heavenly keyboards.  In a jarring shift, the first proper song “Let’s Get Together” doesn’t meld well with this intro.  It also sounds a bit out of time, a relic from a couple years prior.  But Minoru is on top of it.  “Let’s get together! Have fun tonight!” goes the boppin’ English chorus, with plenty of the expected thick backing vocals from the Hollywood cast and crew.  Although it already sounded dated for 1989, “Let’s Get Together” is a fun track clearly aiming for a party concert vibe.  Not bad — production is clunky, and there are a couple key changes that sound off, but it’s otherwise a fun song that does what it’s there to do.

American rock vibes dominate “Stand Up to the Danger”, sounding a bit like “Loud and Clear” by Autograph.  That could be Reb Beach just rippin’ it up on the solo, but the track is very standard for the genre.  A neat ballad follows, the Journey-like…ahem…it’s a case of a language barrier, I’m sure, but the song is called “Come Over Me”.  Very much like a Journey ballad, and it’s probably Valory and Smith on bass and drums respectively.  Maxine and Julia Waters on backing vocals.

A cool 80s bass groove sets the tone on “I Can’t Wait”.  This mid-tempo car-cruiser is an album highlight, and a track worth getting in your ears.  Great solo too (Doug?).  Coincidentally, Minoru’s replacement in Loudness was a fellow named Mike Vescera, and he later recorded a different song called “I Can’t Wait” with Yngwie J. Malmsteen.  One of Minbru’s weaknesses (and it probably comes down to English as a second language) is a reliance on cliche song titles.  “I Can’t Wait”, “Stayin’ Alive”, “Dynamite”, and “Fool For You” are all song titles you’ve heard before.

Speaking of “Dynamite”, the next track on the disc — it’s a little more unique.  With a bluesy opening, it soon lets loose with a blast of saxophone.  The chorus is full-on pop.  A little clunky in construction and production, but different and still cool.

A soft keyboard ballad called “You Can Do It” sits right in the middle of the album.  Even though vinyl, and  especially cassettes were big in 1989, One only saw release on CD.  No “side one” or “side two” with this album.  Once more the ballad would sound appropriate on a Steve Perry album, and the guitar solo is really smooth.  Good song; Minoru’s style of singing is a bit overblown for a soulful ballad, but you can certainly tell he loves singing this way.

“Bluest Sky” is cool, acoustic and stripped back but “Stayin’ Alive” really scorches.  It’s the closest thing to classic Loudness.  It is the only clearly heavy metal track on the album.  Probably Reb Beach ripping up his fretboard and whammy bar on the solo.  Definitely Mark Slaughter on the chorus.  The horn section returns on “Fool For You”, but Minoru’s over-the-top singing does not suit the funky metal stylings.  He does well on “Too Long Away to Reach”, a little more restrained.  But it is the third ballad that really does sound like Journey.  So much that you’d assume it was Neal Schon on guitar.

Finally Minoru closes his solo debut on one more ballad, “I’ll Never Hide My Love Again”.  This time it’s a big power ballad with a massive chorus, and because it’s dramatically different from the earlier ballads, it works.  Definite vibes of King Kobra’s “Dancing With Desire” (1985).

See what I mean when I say that One sounds dated already even for 1989?  That doesn’t make it bad, but not all pieces fit.  There are some obtrusive keyboard overdubs, some of the ingredients just don’t mix.  While Minoru is a fine vocalist, and he gives 110% here, some of the songs sound like they would work better if he laid back a bit.  Then again, that could be the language barrier; the words he is singing might be totally appropriate to his vocal output.  Everything in music is subjective anyway.  Regardless of interpretation, Minoru Niihara’s effort is no less than his whole heart, and you have to give credit for that.

3/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: Bonham – Mad Hatter (1992 Japanese import)

BONHAM – Mad Hatter (1992 Sony Japan)

The first Bonham album in 1989 was a critic’s darling.  Produced by Bob Ezrin, it sold well enough and made plenty of year-end lists.  For the year 1989, it was a breath of fresh air compared to the Motley Crue, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard tracks dominating the airwaves.  Those who thirsted for the rarified air of Led Zeppelin got some of that with Jason on drums and the incredible Canadian Daniel MacMaster on lead vocals.  It was easy to imagine that “Wait For You” was a new Zeppelin single built for that year.  But every band has to grow, and where would Bonham take it?  Further down the Zeppelin road, or try and find their own identity?

Bob Ezrin did not return, and most of the followup album Mad Hatter was produced by Tony Platt, with the rest produced by Ron Saint Germain.  The band grew from the debut, establishing more of their own groove.  It was a more diverse and challenging platter.  Unfortunately, the album arrived in 1992, amidst the Pearl Jams, Soundgardens, Nirvanas and the rising tide of grunge.  Despite the strong single “Change of a Season”, the album tanked.

What an opener “Bing” is, a word that doesn’t seem to be in any of the lyrics.  At first, it has a very old school Zeppelin groove, akin to “Candy Store Rock” meets “Black Dog”.  But then it goes to a completely different place on the chorus.  The sonics are clearer and sharper than the debut.  Jason’s drums are huge as the should be.

Yet it’s the title track that really shocks the system.  Opening with a blast of horns, “Mad Hatter” goes one of the few places Zeppelin never went:  full-on funk with horns.  This would be the Tower of Power horn section.  It would be lazy to compare “Mad Hatter” to “Get the Funk Out” from a couple years past, as it has its own vibe.  Ian Hatton on guitar proves himself to be diverse talent with licks-o-plenty.

Another direction is explored on “Change of a Season”, the shoulda-woulda-coulda single that would have been huge a year or two prior.  The melancholy ballad was simply the wrong temperature for 1992. The gothic tone of the video was cool, but the video got zip for airplay.  It’s the backing strings (synth) and epic chorus that make this song.  It sounds less like Zeppelin and perhaps more like something from David Coverdale’s Reptile Emporium.

Another cool direction is explored on “Hold On”, a unique song with elements from multiple genres.  Funk, soul, progressive, blues, and even bluegrass.  This is followed by another song with epic overtones, “The Storm”, a six minute track that takes the Zeppelin influences to the craggy progressive peaks of another land.

Although there’s no side break on a CD, there are a natural place for it as you can pause for a breath before plunging into “Ride on a Dream”.  A breaknace pace and metallic riff make it unlike anything else on the album.  Perhaps a band like the Scorpions could do “Ride on a Dream”, but even Klaus would be challenged by the outstanding MacMaster lead vocal.  This plutonium-fuelled track would give anyone a run for their money.

But after all that drama, you need something a little more laid back.  That would be “Good With the Bad”, a jazzy piano ballad and the longest song on the album.   It doesn’t remain in ballad territory forever, going to the swamps of Florida where Savatage reside halfway through.  The comparisons are easy to hear.  Next, we go to a bluesy, funky blast of Zeppelin-flavoured ale on “Backdoor”.  Another cool tune with a different vibe from the others.  Things drag a bit on “Secrets”, which tries to marry the funky side with a “Kashmir”-scale chorus but doesn’t really follow through.

Moving on to the end, it’s “Los Locos” in second to last position.  This is a tender blues guitar/violin instrumental with dark piano accents.  That would be bassist John Smithson handling those wicked violin licks and a lot of the keyboards.  Perfect track for this spot, setting up for the closer.  It’s up to “Chimera” to take you out, and it does with a shiny upbeat vibe.  Although it’s probably sheer coincidence, it sounds a bit like Marillion circa the same period.

Lo and behold, that is not all!  The Japanese fans got a little bonus on their CDs called “Waste No Time”.  It’s definitely not an also-ran.  It has a heavy bass groove that isn’t like the other tracks on the album.  MacMaster really lets it blast on the chorus too.  Definitely Zeppelin vibes come solo time.

This album was available with two covers.  The majority of copies have the surreal Dali-esque landscape that you see here.  The alternate cover was plain white with just the new Bonham logo.  Which looks rather silly without the proper cover art for context.  That’s the cover that retailers such as Columbia House sold in the 1990s.

In 1994, Jason Bonham reconvened with Ian Hatton and John Smithson, but not Daniel MacMaster.  The new singer was Marti Frederiksen — yes, that Marti Frederiksen, the one that writes massive hits for everyone today.  The band took on a new modern grunge sound, and renamed themselves Motherland.  ☮︎ For Me was the pretentious name of that album.  As a sad final coda, Daniel MacMaster died too young at age 39 from a strep infection that he thought was a cold.

At least we can say that Bonham with MacMaster really did outgrow the Zeppelin tag by the second album.  Still a part of the DNA, but expressing itself more rarely.  It’s a shame about the timing of the album, because had it sold like the first one did, maybe we wouldn’t have had the Motherland debocle.  Mad Hatter is a pretty fine second album that does all the things that second albums should do.  Shame it was the last.

3.75/5 stars

THREE-VIEW: KISS – Best of Solo Albums (Japanese CD)

  Best of Solo Albums (Originally 1979, 2020 Universal Japan CD)

Third review for this Kiss compilation here, but why?  A couple reasons.  For one, it’s the first-ever official CD release of this album!  It took 41 years for them to finally put out a CD, and yet only in Japan.  More remarkably, there is one track here that I’ve never heard before in this particular version.

That song is the incredible Paul Stanley epic “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.  On Paul’s solo disc, it fades away at the end of side one at 5:35 in length.  Here, it goes to 5:48, no fade, right to the end of the track.  It’s an ending I’ve never heard before.  This song isn’t even on the more common European version of Best of Solo Albums, just the Japanese.  And apparently the CD has an unreleased version without the fade.

“Oh boy!” you exclaim.  “I have to buy this import just to get 13 seconds of music I never heard before?”

No.  You don’t have to buy it.  I did, because I wanted a copy of this album on CD.  When I discovered the longer version of the track, I was ecstatic to unexpectedly get something extra for my money.

There’s no need to review this album track by track again.  I’ve done it twice, and I’ve also reviewed all four solos albums twice each.  There’s really no need to run through all the songs again, although this tracklist is quite different.  Unlike the European version, these songs are not arranged in three-track blocks for each member.  Additionally, seven of the European tracks were substituted with others.  That’s more than half the album!

Gene Simmons:  Instead of “Mr. Make Believe” and “See You In Your Dreams”, Japan used “See You Tonite” and “Living In Sin”

Paul Stanley:  “Move On” was replaced by the unreleased version of “Take Me Away (Together As One)”.

Ace Frehley:  “Speedin’ Back to my Baby” was removed in favour of the instrumental “Fractured Mirror”

Peter Criss:  All three of the Cat’s songs – “You Matter To Me”, “Tossin’ and Turnin’”, and “Hooked on Rock and Roll” were replaced!  I guess Japan didn’t care for those as much as they did “Don’t You Let Me Down”, “Rock Me Baby” and “I Can’t Stop the Rain”.

For me, I prefer the running order that Europe used, with each member of the band getting three songs in a chunk.  However, there are plenty of songs that I prefer on the Japanese version, such as “See You Tonite”, “Take Me Away (Together As One), “I Can’t Stop the Rain” and “Don’t You Let Me Down”.

It’s interesting that the solo albums are by and large panned by the masses, but nobody can agree on the “Best Of“.  Maybe those albums weren’t so bad after all, at least when you distil them down to the essential tracks.  The Japanese CD will become my preferred listening experience for two main reasons:  it sounds better than the vinyl, and I like more of the songs.  It would sound even better if I had an MQA decoder, a new-ish hi-resolution CD format from Japan, which will unlock an even better sounding version of the album, if you have a few grand to spend on upgrading your system.  If not, enjoy the disc and stellar packaging, with not one but two different covers to display.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Change the World (2020 Japanese import)

HAREM SCAREM – Change the World (2020 Frontiers Japanese import)

One of the greatest melodic rock bands in the world is Canadian and 30 years since their inception, they still got what it takes.  Pete Lesperance, Harry Hess, Creighton Doane and Darren Smith can be counted on to deliver some great professional singalong tuneage every time.  Not every album has been brilliant (some people don’t like the Rubber era, I’m not big on Voice of Reason) but with their latest Change the World, Harem Scarem is back on top.

The upbeat title track opens the celebration with chiming guitar notes wrung from the neck.  “You and I are gonna change the world,” sings Harry with an uplifting melody.  Pete’s got his back with hooky guitar fills.  A track like this could have easily come from peak period HS, like 93’s Mood Swings.  “Aftershock” has a little more bite, but the same kind of killer chorus.  For those unfamiliar, expect thick, heavily layered choruses with all four guys singing multitracked backing vocals.  It’s like Def Leppard with more balls.  Yet it’s also their own song because Harry Hess’ voice has not changed one iota.  It’s just as powerful as it was on 1985’s Blind Vengeance debut, only better!  “Searching For Meaning” hearkens back to the pop sensibilities of Rubber, but richer in tone and with a heavier slam.

Things go darker on “The Death of Me” without losing the edge.  It’s not about defeat, it’s about keeping up the fight.  “I know you won’t be the death of me!”  An apt tune for 2020.  “Hit the panic override!” urges Harry.  Keep calm and carry on!

The piano comes out for the first ballad “Mother of Invention”.  The vocal arrangement here is quite nice though the song isn’t all that memorable.  The bass-driven “No Man’s Land” is more unique, and has one of those choruses that is so hard for forget.  Then head for space on “In the Unknown”, a softer burner of a track that launches into the stratosphere, fuelled by killer hooks.  This is Harem Scarem’s bread and butter.

If you think a song with a title like “Riot In My Head” should be faster and more intense, then you got your wish.  The riff sounds as if lifted from a classic 80s racing song.  Great track, as is the ballad “No Me Without You”, with its slight nods to the Beatles.  It’s back to the racetrack with “Fire & Gasoline”, an absolute smoker of a song.  There’s a classic Lesperance guitar solo to savour and a bangin’ beat to bash your head to.  The standard album then concludes on “Swallowed By the Machine”, another defiant fist pumping rocker.  Get psyched with lyrics such as “We all have dreams, we all have doubts, be careful which you feed, and don’t get swallowed by the machine.”  A rip-roaring guitar workout a-la Nuno Bettencourt takes it to another level.  Talk about ending the album on an up!

Of course, those who go the extra mile and purchase the Japanese CD get the extra track, an acoustic recording of “No Man’s Land”.  It’s an interesting alternative though not as impressive as the original.  Still a cool little coda, and still ending the album on an up note.

For a humble band from Canada that a lot of people aren’t even aware of, Harem Scarem have a remarkably huge discography.  There are more peaks than valleys, but Change the World is definitely evidence that this band has more to give.  One of the finer rock records of 2020.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Stryper – Even the Devil Believes (2020 Japanese version)

STRYPER – Even the Devil Believes (2020 Avalon Japan)

The resurrected Stryper have been riding a solid yellow and black wave of quality for several albums now.  Singer/guitarist Michael Sweet has honed in on an early-80s metal sound as Stryper’s foundation, with emphasis on riffs, vocal melodies and cool guitar solos.  2020’s Even the Devil Believes dwells within this rich landscape, drawing inspiration from classics galore.

Speedy metal abides.  “Blood From Above” sounds like Accept and Stryper in an atomic collision.  No quarter given here; this song is full-on, and you can easily imagine it coming from a lost album of the 80s.  However, a title like “Make Love Great Again” could only have come in 2020.  Stryper usually stay out of political commentary, but it’s obvious what “There’s a culture building walls, just like vultures consuming all,” is an oblique reference to.  While no artist should have to “stay in their lane”, this isn’t the kind of thing I want to be reminded of when I listen to Stryper.  Otherwise, the track is a slow metallic Dokken-esque groove, with an uplifting chorus.  Perhaps George Lynch has been rubbing off on Michael Sweet, but if Dokken had recorded “Make Love Great Again” in 1987 it would been a single.

Third song “Let Him In” is back to straight preachin’, only it’s preaching from a the open window of a yellow and black ’81 Corvette, rippin’ the tires.  The Dokken vibes resume on “Do Unto Others”, with a guitar solo that sounds as if inspired by the School of Rhoads.  But then the title track “Even the Devil Believes” sounds like “Breaking the Chains”.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means these songs have a classic vibe that brings back memories and emotions.  The chorus has the melodic sensibilities of Harem Scarem while there’s a dual solo a-la the mighty Priest.  Stryper then ease up on the pedal with “How to Fly”.  Still heavy, but nobody’s racing this time.  If anything this recalls some of the better kinds of 90s rock, with still uplifting melodies playing over slower grinds.  But then it’s back to biting, vicious and righteous metal on “Divider”.

Something cool happens on “This I Pray”.  Out come the acoustics, and we have a ballad that doesn’t sound all that different from Stryper’s celebrated underdog album from 1990, Against the Law.  Though Michael Sweet has spoken poorly of it (mainly because they dropped the Christian lyrics), fans have praised the musical direction of that album.  “This I Pray” feels the same, but without the lyrical change, and should please many diehards.  “Invitation Only” on the other hand brings back the keyboards, and not in a wimpy way at all.  More like Marillion.  This track sounds like a harder, tougher lost song from In God We Trust.  

Moving on to the end, the penultimate “For God & Rock ‘N’ Roll” sounds like a Stryper anthem.  Some fun solos and a fist-pumping chorus to go?  This sets off “Middle Finger Messiah” (now there’s an image for ya) to thrash its way to the finish line.  Kudos to drummer Steven Sweet for laying down the pace for this one.  It’s a fully loaded McLaren flying the flag of Jesus, but at least you know what you’re getting with Stryper.  Plenty of folks who can’t relate to the lyrics just get off on the music.  And “Middle Finger Messiah” sets the phasers on “stun”, especially during the solo/breakdown 2/3rds of the way into the song.  The album doesn’t state who is playing which solos, Michael Sweet or Oz Fox, so we’ll just salute the both of ’em.

The Japanese bonus track is an acoustic mix of “This I Pray” which, in this version, is more in the ballpark of later period Cinderella.  Once again, not a bad thing.  The electric guitars are turned down, letting us hear the nice acoustics, with keyboards providing a little bit of colour.

Here’s the problem with Stryper of late, and it’s a nice problem to have.  They’ve put out some pretty awesome albums in recent years.  Murder By Pride (2009),  No More Hell to Pay (2013), Fallen (2016), and God Damn Evil (2018) all raised the bar, collectively by several measures.  Stryper have been so great for a good stretch that it’s almost futile to rate them all numerically.  May as just say:  yep, they did it again, so go and get it.

5/5 strypes

REVIEW: Judas Priest – Priest, Live & Rare (1998 Japanese import)

JUDAS PRIEST – Priest, Live & Rare (1998 Sony Japan)

Fun fact:  in 1998, there were three Judas Priest live albums released.  First was the official ’98 Live Meltdown, featuring then-current singer Tim “Ripper” Owens.  There was also Concert Classics, an unauthorised CD from the British Steel tour that the band swiftly took legal action to remove from store shelves.  Finally, a CD called Priest, Live & Rare released by their old label Sony in Japan, featuring a smorgasbord of live B-sides.

Judas Priest’s B-sides don’t garner a lot of attention, but are worth looking in to.  Fortunately, a large assortment of them are collected on this compilation.  Covering a period from 1978 to 1986, Priest released a number of live B-sides (and one remix) that are included here.  Only two (“Starbreaker”, and a version of “Breaking the Law”) were released on CD in the 2004 Metalogy box set.  Because Priest were conscious of giving value to fans, the live B-sides are not the same familiar versions from live albums.

From the “Evening Star” single in 1978 comes “Beyond the Realms of Death”, Judas Priest’s “Stairway to Heaven”, or so some said.  It’s a rather weak comparison, but “Beyond the Realms of Death” does hold special status.  Glen’s solo, though imperfect, drips with the tension that comes from the live performance.  From the same gig, but lifted from the “Take on the World” single comes “White Heat, Red Hot” and “Starbreaker”.  You can hear the life in the songs, from Les Binks’ organic drum work to Rob’s impassioned performance.  The man is in top voice especially on “White Heat, Red Hot”.  Les Binks has an extended energized drum solo on “Starbreaker”.  These are fantastic live versions that need to be in a diehard’s collection.

The next single visited is 1981’s “Hot Rockin'”, with two live B-sides:  “Breaking the Law” and “Living After Midnight” from that year in Holland.  The drum stool has changed hands from Les Binks to Dave Holland, and it is like the band has had a heart transplant.  The difference is notable given that on this CD, Binks went out on a drum solo.  It’s like a pacemaker has been installed and the pulse of the beast has been tamed.  But that’s 80s Priest for you, and with that said, these are two excellent versions of some serious Priest hits.  Refreshing to hear, after the same familiar ones over and over again.

Priest’s set at the 1983 US Festival has not been released on CD yet, but here are some for you.  (The Festival on DVD is not an issue — the deluxe Screaming for Vengeance contains the whole thing.)  Here you get “Green Manalishi”, “Breaking the Law” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”.  “Green Manalishi” is a fantastic version (at least for one with Dave Holland on drums!) and Rob is peak Halford.  These three tracks are sourced from a live 1983 Japanese “Green Manalishi” EP that costs some fair funds on its own.  (This is the version of “Breaking the Law” that you can also find on the Metalogy box set.)

“Private Propety” (originally from 1986’s Turbo) is a rare live take from St. Louis. It was originally released on the “Parental Guidance” 12″ single.  Therefore it’s not the same one from Priest Live, nor the Turbo 30th anniversary set.  This one predates the release of the others and has a nice untampered quality.  Finally, also from the “Parental Guidance” single, is the only disappointing B-side in this collection.  It’s the “Hi-Octane” extended remix of “Turbo Lover”!  Extended remixes were a popular thing in the 80s.  Every mainstream artist did them; for example Def Leppard, Kiss and Aerosmith.  “Turbo Lover” is one of the poorer such examples.  Were any dance clubs likely to play Judas Priest?  No, but the Priest did try.

Unweildy ham-fisted “Turbo Lover” aside, Priest, Live & Rare is a highly recommended collection to get 10 rare Priest B-sides in one fell swoop.  Definitely cheaper than tracking down all those singles.

4.5/5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: The Darkness – Easter is Cancelled (2019 Japanese import)

THE DARKNESS – Easter is Cancelled (2019 Canary Dwarf, Japanese release)

I’m baffled.  I’m truly baffled this time, and I’ve followed The Darkness through thick and thin!  From brightest days to darkest nights.  From Stone Gods to Hot Leg.  And for the first time, The Darkness have thrown me for a loop.

Easter is Cancelled sounds like their rock opera, their big concept album, with gentle acoustics turning into loud bombast.  It looks brilliant on paper, but in practice it sounds more like Tenacious D.  That’s it — this isn’t a Darkness album.  This is what the D should have released instead of whatever Post-Apocalypto was.

Where I used to shout with glee as one gleaming riff gave way to another and then another, now I hear only fragments.  Only portions of great tunes, not completely brilliant tracks front to back.  The top track is actually one of the bonus songs, called “Different Eyes”.  The guitar work on Easter Is Cancelled is consistently stunning, at least.

This review has been painfully hard to write.  I take no pleasure in this.  It took months of agonising to get here.  I don’t want to hate The Darkness.  I want to embrace them — all four of them! — with open arms and heart.  Perhaps one day, I will again.  With all due apologies to Justin, Dan, Frankie and Rufus, this one wasn’t for me.

2/5 stars

I would be neglecting my rock and roll duty if I didn’t report on the Japanese bonus track, “Dancing House”.  It’s only a minute long and it’s…umm…about people dropping in for a party.  It sounds like bad B-52’s.  Really bad B-52’s.  I cannot discern its purpose or reason to exist.

 

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REVIEW: Stryper – Live at the Whiskey (2014 Japanese import)

STRYPER – Live at the Whiskey (2014 Avalon Japan)

Stryper kill it live.  This is evident right from the starter’s gun on the band’s 2014 album Live at the Whiskey.  Pulling no punches, they tear immediately into the Priest-like “Legacy” from the acclaimed No More Hell to Pay.  Anybody who showed up that night expecting frills and lace hasn’t been paying attention.

Another newbie, “Marching into Battle”, which sounds as if it could have rolled off the same assembly line as Soldiers Under Command, wields riffs like swords.  Vocal sweetening is unfortunately obvious.  Most fans would prefer to hear bum notes or missed words over two Michael Sweets singing at once.

The first oldie is a goodie for sure:  “You Know What to Do”, followed immediately by “Loud N’ Clear”, both from the original Yellow and Black Attack.  As if trying to cram all their best early hooks into this one segment of the show, the trinity of “Reach Out”, “Calling to You” and  “Free” are rolled out one by one.  Robert Sweet (Stryper’s “visual timekeeper”) is far heavier live, imbuing the songs with more tonnage.

Heavier metal returns on “More Than a Man” which could have been Iron Maiden if the lyrics weren’t about receiving Jesus in your heart.  After “The Rock That Makes Me Roll”, Stryper returned to their present day with the awesome “No More Hell to Pay”, riffy and slow, like soaring Dio-era Sabbath. “If the dawn reveals the end of days, I’ll follow You till there’s no more hell to pay.” It’s a catchier chorus than it reads, and it’s followed by “Jesus is Just Alright With Me” which is basically all chorus and guitar solo!

Stryper didn’t ignore their most pop album, 1988’s In God We Trust.  The hit single “Always There For You” is stripped bare of its keyboards and re-arranged for blowing speakers.  Even Against the Law, from a brief period when Stryper dropped religion from their lyrics, is visited.  “One For All” was one of the heavier tracks from that great LP, and the lyrics maintain a positive outlook.  Focus then returns to the first cluster of albums with “The Way”, “To Hell With the Devil” and of course “Soldiers Under Command”.  No more mistaking the message now!  “Oh, oh, oh, what did you say?  Oh, oh, oh, Christ is the way!”  In the early days, Stryper were far less poetic, but they sure were heavy.

As is the norm, Japan received a bonus track for their pressing of Live at the Whiskey, and it’s actually a studio song. “All of Me” is the only ballad on the album, a spot-on re-recording from To Hell With the Devil.  Aside from the lower key, it’s almost identical.  One has to assume it’s an also-ran from 2013’s Second Coming album.  Can’t have too many ballads on one album, of course.  Valuable bonus tracks are always appreciated.  This one came as a bit of a surprise.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Stryper – Second Coming (2013 Japanese import)

STRYPER – Second Coming (2013 Avalon Japan)

Re-recordings?  Who needs ’em?  Well, in Stryper’s case, you might!

Let’s be blunt.  There are some 80s bands who sound better today than they did when they were the most popular.  Voices change, skills improve, but production values have also evolved.  Stryper’s early albums were great but they don’t have the gut-punch sonics of Stryper today.  What’s wrong with some older, wiser and heavier versions?  It’s not as if Stryper were foisting these upon the fans instead of writing new music.  They never stopped writing and releasing new albums.  Second Coming is a nice treat, and also a way to get consistent versions of the old songs that can sit on a mix CD with the new ones.

Second Coming begins with the first EP (The Yellow and Black Attack), and the songs “Loud N’ Clear” and “Loving You”.  They’ve never sounded heavier, and Michael Sweet’s voice is still a powerful one.  Shame “You Know What To Do” wasn’t updated as well, since that’s such an awesome song.

Get in line, you soldiers, for up next is “Soldiers Under Command”.  Sure, the voices aren’t as high as they once were, but sometimes an older voice has more character.  That’s certainly the case for Michael Sweet, who is twice the singer now.  “Soldiers” can stand proudly next to the original as a slightly different but no less excellent monument.  There are a generous number of songs (six) from Soldiers Under Command, including a stunning “Reach Out”.

The beloved To Hell With the Devil album gets five more inclusions, including “Free” and “Calling On You”, though not “Honestly”.  Second Coming is light on ballads, with only “First Love” representing them.  In one way it’s cool that Second Coming is kept heavy.  In another, it’s too bad we didn’t get new versions of tracks like “Honestly” or “I Believe in You”.  There is also nothing from In God We Trust or beyond.  (Granted, they already re-recorded that title track on 2005’s Reborn.)  In essence, Second Coming collects some of the best and heaviest material from the first EP and two albums.

And new songs too!  Since their triumphant reunion, Stryper have scarcely slowed down, releasing a constant stream of acclaimed heavy metal albums.  The two new songs here are “Bleeding From the Inside Out” and “Blackened” (not the Metallica song).  The heavy vibe continues.  “Bleeding” has a solid, groovy riff and an adventurous arrangement including piano and patented harmonies.    “Blackened” just slams.  Robert Sweet’s one of the hardest hitting drummers out there, and that’s what he does on “Blackened”.  Tim Gaines gets a bass groove going off that and it’s a slamdance from there.  Count on melodies, solos and harmonies to help soften those jagged guitars.

Japan always gets the bonus tracks, and they got a good one this time.  Second Coming needed more ballads; Stryper’s success always had a foot in ballads.  “Together As One” is the added bonus track, a simple version with Michael accompanied by piano and strings.  Lucky, lucky Japan!

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Stryper – God Damn Evil (2018 Japanese import)

STRYPER – God Damn Evil (2018 Frontiers Japan)

Timothy Gaines ejected from Stryper, unfortunately not on the best of terms.  He was swiftly replaced by Perry Richardson of Firehouse, who fit into the rock regime smoothly and easily.  God Damn Evil is Stryper’s first with the new bassist, but latest in a long string of credible and crucial Christian metal albums.

But first a word about Walmart, who refused to stock this album based on the title alone.

This exemplifies two huge problems in society today.  One:  the inability to think for oneself.  Two:  pandering in fear to the whims of the general public.  Walmart were afraid they’d get complaints about an album called God Damn Evil, and so refused to offer it.  It’s patently obvious what the title means; just look at the cover art.  God is damning the evil.  Spelling it out even further, the evil is clearly depicted as “money”.  (Maybe the corporate mega-giant doesn’t like this anti-capitalism message.)

Maybe Stryper should have titled this album God Damn, People Are Stupid.  You can’t buy God Damn Evil at Walmart, but you can buy Night of the Demons on Blu-ray.  Go figure.

The music is what matters most, and the word on the street is that God Damn Evil is their best album yet.

That’s a tough claim.  After all, Fallen and No More Hell to Pay are both excellent metal albums, and surely rank among Stryper’s top five.  God Damn Evil shares a similar heavy direction, and even matching cover art, forming an ad-hoc trilogy.  The new one is the heaviest of the three.  Fans were taken aback by lead track “Take It to the Cross”, the closest Stryper have been to thrash metal.  From guttural grunts to screams so high they border on self-parody, “Take It to the Cross” is aural shrapnel of the best kind.

The only other track that comes close to “Take It to the Cross” in terms of speed is the Priest-like closer “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here”.  There is no question that Stryper can make metal as gleaming as their heroes do.

More traditional is “Sorry”, a metal groove with a slaying chorus on top.  It’s one of many contenders for “favourite song”, along with a swaggering “Own Up”.  “Lost” reduces the tempo, but not the power.  The message is there too, but not overwhelming.  Anyone can headbang along.  The title track “God Damn Evil” is unexpectedly different, being a straightforward hard rock tune with an anthemic chorus.  Stryper fear no evil in “The Valley”, a heavy metal retelling of Psalm 23 (“the valley of the shadow of death”).  Another top track is “Beautiful” which bears a Sabbath groove the likes of which is the basis of the genre.  It’s melodic, but not a ballad.  There’s only one of those:  “Can’t Live Without Your Love”, available in Japan in two versions.  The standard 80s-sounding power ballad would stand proudly next to “Is This Love” by Whitesnake.  The Japan-exclusive acoustic version is even better.

The highlights are many, and filler nonexistent.  Without giving up a shade of their integrity, Stryper have managed to remain true to their origins and yet evolve into higher, heavier grooves.  The key is the eternal youth of singer Michael Sweet.

Although some still think Stryper are a synonym with bad 80s bands, you’d be wrong to discount them now.  Stryper may well indeed have done their best album in 2018.

5/5 stars