Oz Fox

REVIEW: Stryper – Fallen (2016 Japanese import)

STRYPER – Fallen (2016 Frontiers, Marquee Japanese import)

As far as this writer is concerned, Stryper are the reunion kings.  Their 80s output featured fantastic singles like “Calling to You” and “Free”, but many of the albums were uneven and not as rocking as you knew they wanted to be.  Since their heavy-as-hell (pun intended) comeback album Reborn (2005), Stryper have been off the leash.  It seems they gave up trying to fit in to any specific mold and are just trying to be true to themselves through their music.  2016’s incredible Fallen could be the pinnacle of the reunion era.

Unabashedly Christian, the opening track “Yahweh” happens to be one of the most potently epic slices of rock I’ve heard.  A choir sings “Yahweh, Yahweh…” while lead wailer Michael Sweet spits out of his words as few singers in metal can do.  His range is still remarkable and he has lost none of his lung capacity.  There are Maiden-esque riffs, latter-day Metallica grooves, and some seriously epic solo work by Sweet and guitarist Oz Fox.  And that’s all in just the first 6:21 of the album.  It’s strange to say, but you could compare “Yahweh” to similar epic tracks by Ghost.

“Yahweh” may be the most impressive track on a very good metal album, but it’s certainly not the only one.  The cool descending riff that accompanies “Fallen” bites into your flesh, while Sweet’s chorus lifts the ceiling.  There is also material that sounds like old school Stryper, such as “King of Kings”, “Big Screen Lies” and “Pride”.  These songs boast big and classic sounding choruses and riffs.  Stryper even snuck in a Black Sabbath cover (not their first) of “After Forever”.  The words fit Stryper like a leather studded glove:

Perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone,
Open your eyes, just realize that He is the one,
The only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate,
Or will you still jeer at all you hear? Yes, I think it’s too late.

A lot of people forget how Christian that particular Sabbath lyric is!  Very amusing how much flack metal took from the church in the 80s, all the while “After Forever” dated back to Master of Reality in 1971!  Granted, I’m certain that most Catholics wouldn’t appreciate the line “Would you like to see the pope on the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool?”

Whether you are a believer (it’s not a requirement) or just a worshipper at the altar of St. Halen, Stryper serves up plenty of hot metal on Fallen.  The modern grooves of “Heaven” and “Let There Be Light” are two that should appeal to many, and long time fans of Stryper will go bananas for the emphasis on melodies and choruses.  And Stryper didn’t forget their ballad fans, either.  “All Over Again” is a typical bombastic Stryper ballad, but not with the extra saccharine they used to utilize in the 80s.  And if that is too bombastic for you, check out the acoustic version included as a Japanese exclusive bonus track.  I think I prefer the bare acoustic version, but I’m also getting tired of getting acoustic versions as my Japanese bonus tracks.  It seems the go-to bonus track lately has been the acoustic version.

Rest assured, Stryper have not Fallen.  Quite the opposite. They continue to soar on mighty wings of metal.

5/5 stars

 

 

 

 

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REVIEW: Stryper – Reborn (2005)

STRYPER REBORN_0002


STRYPER REBORN_0001STRYPER – Reborn (2005 EMI)

A few gigs led to a greatest hits CD and two new songs.  That led to a tour and a live album.  That in turn finally gave way to a new studio album by Stryper.  The aptly titled Reborn was unlike any prior Stryper album:  Detuned and heavier than hell, Reborn shocked pretty much everybody that heard it! Drum loops, chugging riffs…this was Stryper? There was also a new bassist on board — Tracy Ferrie, from Michael Sweet’s solo band.

“Open Your Eyes” begins abruptly, as if to further surprise the listener with the new Stryper sound.  It bears no resemblance to old Stryper whatsoever.  It is stripped down, heavy, droney, with emphasis on the riff, and no screams!  Stryper appeared to go very “2000’s” with their new sound, but unlike Metallica, they hung onto the guitar solos!  Then “Reborn” is stuttery and chunky.  It takes some getting used to, because melody takes a back seat to heavy here.  It’s good — but there are few hooks.  Overall, the CD reminds me of mid-90’s Dio.  I must say that drummer Robert Sweet seems particularly in his element on this heavy stuff, but his snare drum sound is a bit stuffy.

Some understated and cool guitar harmonies help out “When Did I See You Cry” on the chorus.  It’s also the first song to present those uplifting Stryper harmonies.  “Make You Mine” is a slow rocker with a melodic vocal and a highlight.  It’s remarkable how Michael Sweet’s voice has grown to have so much character while retaining its power. “Live Again” steals the riff from “Shout at the Devil” and shakes it up a bit. “Shout” was stolen from “Foxy Lady” anyway, so who cares? The song sounds nothing like “Shout” otherwise, but it’s back to that heavy detuned Stryper sound.

“If I Die” is a slow, heavy burner with a great chorus. That’s followed by “Wait For You” which is a simple pop rock song but recorded heavy, complete with “na na na” backing vocals. “Rain” is a bit of a ballad, and Sweet really reaches for it on the chorus. Solid song albeit a tad generic. “10,000 Years” is stuttery and rhythmic but doesn’t have a lot of hooks. Album closer “I.G.W.T.” is a much heavier, much better remake of the title track from 1988’s In God We Trust. This version kills the original in every single way possible. Michael even nails that final scream.

The best song on the album, by a fair shake, is the mighty “Passion”.  Not only does it possess a chorus that will shake the foundations, but it’s also the most blatantly in your face about their faith.  “Jesus Christ, I wanna serve you, I want what you want for me.  Sacred voice, I don’t deserve you, through your Passion I am free.”  That chorus will not be for everybody obviously, but damn it sure is catchy when Sweet lets it all out!  Give it a listen and see what I mean.  You don’t have to sing along if you don’t want to.

REBORNWhen originally released, the CD came packaged in a semi-transparent yellow cellophane wrap. I found it as such when it first came out at a nearby Christian book & CD store. They wanted $24.99 for it, and I couldn’t justify paying that much for yellow shrink wrap, when I could wait for a used copy to come in at the Record Store at which I worked. I ended up with the used copy, but boy I sure did like the way it looked with the yellow cellophane. The image on the cover of the band ripping the yellow ooze from their bodies is meant to represent how Stryper felt “reborn” individually and collectively. Of course the yellow and black are a return to Stryper’s original trademark colour scheme which they dropped on Against the Law.

Since Reborn, Stryper have zeroed in on the “perfect” sound, sort of a cross between this and old Stryper with loads of melody and power. Their albums continue to impress. Reborn was a necessary first step back, and it takes some getting used to. It doesn’t have the longevity of their classic work, but it definitely ain’t shabby.

3.25/5 stars

I hope you enjoyed Stryper week here at mikeladano.com!  Tomorrow we return to our regularly scheduled instalment of Getting More Tale.

REVIEW: Stryper – Against the Law (1990)

AGAINST THE LAW_0001STRYPER – Against the Law (1990 Enigma)

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, Stryper finally took the second biggest gamble* of their lives and dropped the overtly Christian themes in their lyrics.  It was a decision they would quickly regret.  Changing their lyrical message did nothing to help them sell records, and they found themselves without a record deal.  They spurted out some new songs for a greatest hits album called Can’t Stop the Rock before Michael Sweet bailed and the band dissolved.  In the liner notes to that album, drummer Robert Sweet states, “We were making a grab for musical freedom, but we never should have let that be misinterpreted as a change in our beliefs.”

Before the change, cynics accused Stryper of faking the sincerity of their beliefs in order to “cash in” on the “gimmick” of being a Christian metal band.  Now that they had dropped those lyrics, they were accused of cashing in once again.  There was no winning at this point for Stryper.  No wonder the band caved in.

The shame of it is, fans in the know consider their 1990 album Against the Law to be among their very best.  It earned a cult classic status with those who ignored the hype.  The change wasn’t just lyrical, but total.  Eager to reverse the musical damage of In God We Trust, Stryper toughened up their sound and got veteran producer Tom Werman behind the console.  They also changed their image for the better.  Gone were the massive hairdos and the yellow and black bumblebee suits.  In were beards and goatees, and darker understated clothes.  The stripes were still there in the stage costumes, but they were now gray and black.  New logo, new start.  Or not.

A thunderous new sound opened the new album — a funky heavy metal riff.  No, this isn’t Extreme, it’s Stryper.  “Against the Law” is a really cool shuffle with echoes of Van Halen too.  The band were displaying a new toughness, and Werman captured a more appropriate raw sound from the band.  Guitar-wise, Michael Sweet and Oz Fox are not content to just law down some solos, but instead leave jaws on the floor with their creative shreddery.

“Two Time Woman” is not the kind of song title that Stryper fans were used to see on their albums.  This Motley Crue/Scorpions-ish rocker is strong but not a standout, despite its release as a music video. It’s just nice to hear Stryper rocking out with solid production behind them.

The next track “Rock the People” takes the album back to a funky “extreme”. It’s the lighter “Two Bodies (One Mind One Soul)” that really had hit potential. The acoustic guitars lull you in, but the chorus kills! “Two Bodies” gets my vote for best track on the album. It really is a shame that it never became a hit in this universe. Maybe on another Earth, where rock never fell to grunge….

“Not That Kind of Guy” is a blazingly fast Van Halen-style shuffle. David Lee Roth would have given his left nut for a song this much like his old band at the time. This kind of tune really reveals why Stryper were right to free up their songwriting a bit, if only for one album. This kind of music does not really fit spiritual lyrics all that well, so good on them for stretching out and writing a few songs like this. And listen to Michael Sweet’s scream at the end! Never before on a Stryper album had he let loose like that.

The big surprise of the album was the song chosen as lead single: a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”! In a 1990 MuchMusic interview, bassist Tim Gaines recalled that the song was suggested to them and the reaction was “‘Shining Star’? What the hell is that going to sound like?” Not bad, actually. “Then we ended up making a video for it, which I’m not sure how that came about,” said Gaines.

“Shining Star” did not grab me at all, at the time. Today I really find it fun and enjoyable. Stryper already had funky metal elements on this album, so why not cover Earth, Wind & Fire? I’d say they pulled it off in their own way. The only mistake was choosing this song as the lead single! Leading with “Two Bodies” might have given the hard rock fans at the time something more familiar to sink their teeth into, than an Earth, Wind & Fire cover. That’s Randy Jackson on bass for this track by the way — that’s one reason why it’s so dang funky!

A few songs ago, Michael Sweet claimed to be “Not That Kind Of Guy”, now he is saying he is just an “Ordinary Man”. This smooth mid-tempo track retains those classic Stryper angelic harmonies, but better arranged to suit harder rock music. Of course, every hard rock album needed to have a ballad. Rather than keep re-writing the same old piano ballads as they had been, Stryper went acoustic for “Lady” (not the Styx song). It was a good move, and a good song. It too had hit potential, but alas, it was not to be for Stryper. They were “Caught in the Middle”; so goes the next song. It is as close as we got to old-school metal Stryper. It’s good that they did not neglect that side of the band’s sound. Again, Sweet throws in some of those unearthly screams that he is capable of.

The sleek metal stomp of “All For One” sounds like classic Dokken to me, and that’s not a bad thing. It has the same dark, ominous chug that George Lynch is so capable of. No wonder Sweet & Lynch hooked up later on! The chorus kills it, too. Against the Law is ended by “Rock the Hell Out of You” which is about as preachy as Stryper get on this album (not very). It’s another killer speedy metal scorcher to go out on. Kudos to Robert Sweet on drums for being able to play like this!

I like stories with happy endings, so I’ll share this. Stryper has since reunited, heavier than ever. Christian lyrics and ordinary rock songs co-exist on the same albums now, and fans couldn’t be happier that they are back. The fact that their reunion-era albums are so damn good doesn’t hurt, either. If the story of Against the Law has a bright side, it is that it was a step on the journey to Reborn, Murder By Pride, The Covering and beyond.

4/5 stars

*Their biggest gamble was trying to be a Christian metal band in the first place.

REVIEW: Stryper – In God We Trust (1988)

IN GOD WE TRUST_0001STRYPER – In God We Trust (1988 Enigma)

In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the President of the United Federation of Planets (Kurtwood Smith) made a throwaway comment in one of his speeches:  “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not necessarily mean we must do that thing.”

I wish somebody in Stryper’s circle or record label Enigma thought that way in 1988.

Just because you have an incredible range and clean voice, does not mean you need to shatter glass with it, and it also doesn’t mean it’s best used by creating heavenly, angelic harmony parts.  Just because you had a successful prior album (To Hell With the Devil) does not mean softening your sound on your next album will equal more success.  If a record company executive said, “If you write more commercial songs and record them with less guitars and more keyboards you’ll get on the radio,” that doesn’t mean they were right.

It’s easy to put on my 20/20 Hindsight Goggles and pick apart In God We Trust, the highly anticipated third album by Stryper.  It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel.  Whatever choices Stryper or management made, In God We Trust is their most dismissed album by fans and critics alike.  It was a perfect storm of bad decisions.  Stryper themselves, dissatisfied with the original title track, later re-recorded it as “IGWT” for  their heavy reunion album Reborn.  That modern, detuned version blows away anything on this album.

The first thing that strikes me about “In God We Trust” (the original, not the remake) is the prominence of the angelic harmonies.  It sounds like a cross between a choir and a toothpaste commercial.  Michael Sweet is an incredible vocalist, this is true, but I maintain that it took him a few albums to really find his voice’s character.  Aside from the harmonies, “In God We Trust” is actually quite a heavy speedy metal track.  Drummer and “visual timekeeper” Robert Sweet is a relentless beast.

“Always There For You” was the saccharine-sweet lead single.  Sweet employed his trademark of hiding his religious message behind a neutral, benign lyric.  “I’m always there for you, I’ll always stand by you, when the world has closed the door and you can’t go on anymore, I’m always there for you.”  It sounds like the directive was, “Write us another song like ‘Calling on You’ but more commercial so we can make an expensive video.”  Then the next song “Keep the Fire Burning” almost sounds like they said the same thing, except about “Free”.  Continuing with the theme of re-writing the past hits, “I Believe In You” is “Honestly, Part II”.  It is sunk completely by the too-sweet Sweet harmonies. This sounds like something my mom would listen to!

Heavier is “The Writing’s On the Wall” but I find the lyrics irritating. “The God that Stryper serves is no delusion!” As a Christian myself, I recognize that people don’t like that kind of thing in their faces all the time. That is a personal preference and I believe there is room for everybody’s opinions. A song like “The Writing’s On the Wall” doesn’t strike me as inviting in its message, but the opposite.

The second side of In God We Trust is commenced with the terribly titled “It’s Up 2 U”. This is actually one of the better songs even though it’s one of the most commercial. The harmonies here are lower are thicker, and it turns into a bit of an anthem on the chorus. Then “The World of You and I” starts with potential as an acoustic ballad, but transitions into a sickly-sweet chorus that I can’t decide if I like or not. For glass-shattering high notes, just skip to 2:10! For really bad songs, check out “Come to the Everlife”. This is like bad Quiet Riot circa QRIII.

“Lonely” is morose but not terrible. It makes the album lean terribly ballad-heavy and soft, however. The keyboards and harmonies overpower the song rendering it somewhat limp, but with a smooth and classy beat. Thankfully “The Reign” closes the album on a heavy, Maiden-esque note. It’s a menacing but preachy metal song.

Stryper did an about-face after this album, realizing that their efforts did not produce a hit. Their next record was the most controversial yet. But that’s another review. In God We Trust lacks the firepower to be worth more than:

2/5
stars

REVIEW: Stryper – To Hell With the Devil (1986)

The rest of the week here at mikeladano.com will be STRYPER WEEK! Hope you dig it.

TO HELL WITH THE DEVIL_0001STRYPER – To Hell With the Devil (1986)

Now here is an album I’ve not heard in a long time.  10 years, I’ll wager, or close to it.  I played To Hell With the Devil a lot when I was a kid, and I seem to recall it being Stryper’s best album.  I’m curious how I feel about it today….

To Hell With the Devil came in my initial Columbia House order back in 1989!  I remember my aunt saying, “This one must be Michael’s because it has the word ‘devil’ in it.”  I told her Stryper were a Christian band but she did have a point, it was mine and not my sister’s tape!

Stryper are a heavier band today than they were in 1986, but this does have some of their best songs.  Even the sound-effect intro “Abyss” is classic.  It’s as familiar to me as “In the Beginning” by Motley Crue or “The Dark” by Black Sabbath.  I used to use all three of those bits for sound effects at Halloween time, in fact.  “To Hell With the Devil” itself is a strong metal song, with Maiden-esque guitar harmonies.  What may turn off modern listeners is the powerful bellow and angelic harmonies of Michael Sweet.  Sweet is an awesome singer — not everybody can take Brad Delp’s place in Boston — but I think younger Sweet hadn’t learned to tame and control his voice the way he has today.  His range is exceptional though, and the guy plays lead guitars too!  What a talent.  “To Hell With the Devil” kicks off the album on a melodic, but heavy note.

TO HELL WITH THE DEVIL_0004

Anthemic hard rock songs are one of Stryper’s specialities, and “Calling On You” is one of their best.  Michael Sweet said in past interviews that he tried to make his songs accessible by keeping the overtly Christian themes a little more subtle.  So, if you know Stryper are Christians, you know what “Calling On You” means.  If you don’t, you think “You give me love, you keep me company” is about two people in love.  This is something I appreciate.  While I am not “in your face” about it, I am a Christian myself, but I don’t always want to be hearing that in my music.  I like balance in my life, so I enjoy both Stryper and Ghost, and that’s just fine.

“Free” kicks ass.  That guitar riff smokes, and once again Stryper composed a melodic, heavy anthem.  Lyrically, Sweet reminds us that we are “free to walk away and deny” if we decide.  “It’s your choice,” go the words, and that helps make the song more inclusive.  “Free” was the song that got me seriously intro Stryper.  As soon as I saw the video on MuchMusic, I was hooked.

A successful hard rock album had to have a ballad in 1986.  That was the key to getting on the radio.  “Honestly” was the big piano ballad.  I don’t care for the quiet opening, but once Michael starts givin’ ‘er, it’s really great.  I didn’t think I’d still care for this ballad today, but it’s exceptionally well written and like I said, Michael Sweet really kicks ass.

The side closer on cassette was “The Way”, the only track written by guitarist Oz Fox.  (I always liked that Oz’s costume in this era had a Darth Vader-like control panel on the front.)  “The Way” is pure heavy metal — riff, smoking vocals, slamming drums.  This one is not about the melodies so much as the fast licks and high screams.  Great tune, although “Rocking for the One who is the rock,” is not the catchiest chorus I’ve ever sung along to.  The guitar solo doesn’t really fit either unfortunately.

“Sing-Along Song” has a “Metal Gods”-ish pulse to it, but it is as far from Judas Priest as you can imagine.  This is a pop rock song with a synthesizer where there should be a bass guitar.  Pretty good tune regardless.  I can imagine this one being quite good in concert.  Meanwhile, “Holding On” reminds me of “Mystery” by Dio but not as memorable.  More metallic is “Rockin’ the World”, a good album track.  A second piano ballad called “All of Me” isn’t bad, but it’s not nearly as good as “Honestly”.  Thankfully, “More Than a Man” ends the album on a solidly heavy moment.  “More Than a Man” is an appropriate bookend for “To Hell With the Devil”, closing the record with one of the most openly Christian songs on the album.  “More than a man, God almighty, He created you.”

Side one of To Hell With the Devil may well be the best side that Stryper have ever done.  It’s almost perfect.  Side two is more uneven.  Good album — but I think Stryper have done better overall since then.

3.5/5 stars