On location in Hollywood, MuchMusic spoke to Tim Gaines and Oz Fox of Stryper about their new album Against the Law! Cast your memories back to 1990. Stryper told the bold step of dropping the Christian lyrics and yellow-and-black outfits. It was a move that they expressed regret about later, but check out the young Stryper’s perspective in this interesting Power Hour clip.
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.
The mailman has been busy this last week or so. Just look at the goodies!
LED ZEPPELIN – “Rock and Roll” / “Friends” Record Store Day single
DEF LEPPARD – Live at Abbey Road Studios 12″ Record Store Day EP
RAINBOW – Memories in Rock II Japanese CD – 2 bonus tracks
STRYPER – God Damn Evil Japanese CD – bonus track
STEPH HONDE – Covering the Monsters
DALE SHERMAN – Mel Brooks FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Outrageous Genius of Comedy books – one for me, one for my dad’s 80th birthday! SHHH don’t tell. He doesn’t read this!
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.
GETTING MORE TALE #523: Columbia House
How many of you were members of the Columbia House music club? Tapes or CDs?
The concept was simple. Get 12 tapes or records for one penny. Then agree to buy “X” more at “regular club prices” within a year. They would usually offer all sorts of incentives, such as getting your first regularly priced item for half price. Their “regular club prices” were fairly high, but if you played your cards right you could make joining the club worthwhile.
Every few weeks after signing up, Columbia House would send you a catalogue and an order form. The order system was controversial, because it required a negative response if you didn’t want to buy something. When you signed up, you could pick your favourite genre of music (I chose “metal”). Each time a catalogue came out, your selected genre would have a “selection of the month”, usually a new release but not always. If you did not respond with an order form expressing that you didn’t want it, they would automatically mail you the “selection of the month” and bill you for it too. (The Columbia Record Club system was worked into a sub-plot of the movie A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers.)
For many people this wasn’t a problem. Our parents let my sister and I sign up when I was in grade 11. We split the membership and free tapes 50/50. We paid for everything ourselves and diligently sent in our order forms each time. We were both already massive music fans, so we poured over every single page. Most times, one of us ended up buying something, if not the selection of the month itself.
I can still remember every album I received in that first shipment. Seven tapes. These tapes went into immediate and constant rotation, which is why I remember them all so well today.
- Leatherwolf – Leatherwolf
- Motley Crue – Girls, Girls, Girls
- Hurricane – Over the Edge
- Stryper – To Hell With the Devil
- Stryper – In God We Trust
- White Lion – Pride
- Sammy Hagar – VOA
Our musical world opened up in a massive way, and not just because of the new music we were listening to. The catalogues introduced us to names and album covers that we’d not experienced yet. What is this Bitches Brew thing? Why did Deep Purple albums have so few songs? Did Iron Maiden copy their Maiden Japan from Purple’s Made In Japan? Holy crap, Hank Williams Jr. has three greatest hits albums?
Everything was absorbed. Five years later, when I started at the Record Store, my boss was surprised that I knew who most of the artists were, what sections they should go in, and even what record labels they were on.
“I read the Columbia House catalogue cover to cover every month,” was my answer!
The catalogue provided knowledge, and pictures to cut out for locker or wall. We made the most of that catalogue every time. It was rare when pictures were not cut out!
I was even able to acquire things that might have been considered rarities back then. I had never seen Leatherwolf stocked in a store, but Columbia House had it. When vinyl was being discontinued, I was still able to get Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind (1991) on LP. They had most of the Savatage albums.
It all sounds wonderful, but Columbia House had flaws too. The biggest one was horrendous quality control. They licensed and manufactured the tapes themselves, which were simply not as good quality wise as the ones you could find in a store. They would be warbling within weeks (if not right out of the case) and the J-cards were sometimes shoddy, with printing not lining up with fold lines, or just they’d just start falling apart along perforations. They also didn’t carry certain record labels. While they had everything Warner Bros and Columbia Records, they had nothing from EMI. Finally, bands made next to nothing on albums that were sold through Columbia House. Some bands such as the Tragically Hip refused to sell their music via Columbia House. We didn’t know all of this as kids, of course. I started to pick up on the quality issues when they seemed to take a serious dive around 1991.
The key to not getting ripped off by Columbia House was to order smart. The 12 free tapes sounds like a great deal, but when you balance in buying the rest of your selections at full price, most people ended up on the losing side. Get in and get out, buying the bare minimum. That was the way to do it. Of course, we didn’t. We just enjoyed the convenience and stayed members for years! No regrets since this led directly to a 12 year career in the Record Store!
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.
When 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.
I hope you enjoyed Stryper week here at mikeladano.com! Tomorrow we return to our regularly scheduled instalment of Getting More Tale.
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.
*Their biggest gamble was trying to be a Christian metal band in the first place.
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:
The rest of the week here at mikeladano.com will be STRYPER WEEK! Hope you dig it.
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.
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.
“I’m letting them pick what songs they wanna do in the way they wanna do it.” Wendy Dio
No preable from me: we all know how great Dio was. Let’s get to the tracks.
Anthrax kick off the festivities with a slamming “Neon Nights”. The storming opener couldn’t have been in a better slot. Not only is Charlie Benate heavy as shit, but the guitar solos are mental. Joe Belladonna handles the powerful vocal ably. Rob Caggiano is still in the lineup indicating this isn’t brand new. I suspect it was recorded at the same time as last year’s Anthems EP.
The guys that never get respect, Tenacious D, tackle the difficult second slot. No worries there; they chose “The Last In Line” which Jack Black sings with no difficulty. Uncle Meat has said it before: Jack Black is one of the best singers he’s seen live. “The Last In Line” proves his pipes, although some may not like his exaggerated, humorous vocal enunciation. Kyle Gass plays a cute recorder solo in lieu of guitar, but there’s not enough K.G. on this track. Brooks Wackerman kicks the drums in the ass.
And speaking of drums, Mike Portnoy is next with Adrenaline Mob. They demolish “Mob Rules”, although singer Russell Allen is certainly no Dio. He is completely overshadowed by Portnoy and the shredding of Mike Orlando.
Corey Taylor, Satchel (Russ Parish) and friends chose “Rainbow In the Dark” as their tribute to Ronnie. This has always been such a fan favourite, and a personal one as well. It is difficult to imagine anyone but Ronnie singing it. While Corey Taylor is not at all like Ronnie James Dio, you can tell he loves this song. It bleeds out of his performance. He does it in his own rasp, and it works.
The incredible Lzzy Hale and Halestorm are up next with another Dio classic, “Straight Through the Heart”. There is no denying the talents of Lzzy Hale, but her powerful pipes are almost too much. Perhaps she overpowers the song, rather than simply fueling it. Halestorm fans will love it, but I think Lzzy maybe should have reeled it in a bit. Or, maybe I just need to get used to it. “Straight From the Heart” does sound better after a few listens.
Biff Byford (Saxon) joins Motorhead on lead vocals for Rainbow’s “Starstruck”. There’s a bit of that Motor-slam in it, but if I didn’t know who it was, I never would have guessed Motorhead. You can hear Lemmy on backing vocals, but weirdly, he’s not credited on bass. Nobody is, but you can hear the bass clearly and it sounds like Lem.
I’m a little sick of the Scorpions doing ballads, but I admit that “Temple of the King” (another Rainbow classic) is stunningly good. One might almost mistake it for a Scorpions original. It has that regal Scorpions bombast to is, but Matthias Jabs’ lead work is just sublime. He’s an underrated player, absolutely. You can tell he’s a Blackmore fan.
An oldie from 1999, Doro’s cover of “Egypt (The Chains are On)” is excellent. It’s cool to hear female singers like Doro and Lzzy Hale sing Dio. Doro’s impressive pipes have always been astounding. Her version of “Egypt” is a little over the top compared to Dio’s, but that’s cool by me.
Killswitch Engage…hmm. “Holy Diver” starts great, super heavy, with some perfectly acceptable, melodic vocals. Then it all goes down the toilet at the bridge. That’s when it turns into hardcore shouting and blast beats…sorry, not on this song, thanks. I can listen to that stuff in moderation, but don’t sully “Holy Diver” with it. Fortunately the guitar solos are great, sounding like an Iron Maiden outtake from Powerslave. Shame about the growling and shouting. Skip.
“Catch the Rainbow” is a great song, and Craig Goldy plays guitar on this cover. He’s ex-Dio himself, and he’s backed by his former Dio-mates Rudy Sarzo, Scott Warren and Simon Wright. (Hey, that’s also 1/3 of Tateryche!) Glenn Hughes sings, but this song sounds out of his scope. His bluesy slant doesn’t work for me. Sorry Glenn, you’re still awesome!
I find it strange that two more ex-Dio members (Jimmy Bain and Rowan Robertson) chose to cover Black Sabbath. But who cares! They covered “I”, perhaps the greatest song from Dehumanizer (1992)! On drums is Brian Tichy, with Oni Logan (Lynch Mob, Dio Disciples) singing. It’s a perfectly authentic version and I love it. It’s absolutely thunderous, and I love Jimmy Bain’s bass sound. Always have. Of all the vocalists on This Is Your Life, it is Oni Logan that comes closest to nailing Dio’s vibe. Considering he’s in Dio Diciples, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I didn’t expect it though, based on what I knew of Logan from Lynch Mob. He fits “I” like a glove!
I was disappointed in Rob Halford’s version of “Man On the Silver Mountain”. It’s true that Halford did replace Dio in Black Sabbath for two shows in 1992. However, having owned a bootleg video of that show since that time, I knew that Halford’s and Dio’s styles didn’t really mesh. This is no different; I don’t think his voice works with the song and it unfortunately shows off the places where Rob’s voice has weakened. What is cool though is that the band (all ex-Dio: Doug Aldrich, Vinnie Appice, Jeff Pilson and Scott Warren) take it to a swampy bluesy Whitesnake-y place for the intro. You can definitely hear Pilson covering the high notes in the chorus.
Finally we arrive at the mighty Metallica. Snicker if you like. If Metallica do one thing really well, it’s covers. If they do two right, it’s covers and medleys. The “Ronnie Rising Medley” is entirely made up of parts of Rainbow songs. “A Light In the Black” bleeds into “Tarot Woman,” where the vocals begin. It’s safe to say if you don’t like Metallica, you won’t like this. If the opposite is true, I think you’re in for a treat. Metallica do these classics in their own style, just as they have in the past when covering Maiden, or Mercyful Fate, or Thin Lizzy. Simply add Lars’ thuds, James’ growl, and some standard Metalli-licks, and you’ve got a medley that is enjoyable through its near-10 minute run time. Having said that, the weak point is definitely “Stargazer”, which is gutted of all its majesty. They do much better with “Kill the King” which is fucking perfect. They include the entire song in their medley!
Fittingly, the album ends on a ballad: Dio’s own somber “This Is Your Life”, performed by the man himself in 1996. I did not like the Angry Machines album, but if there was one song I would have picked as a highlight it would be “This Is Your Life”. Performed only by Dio and Scott Warren on piano, it is unlike anything else in Dio’s canon. The lyrics speak of mortality:
This is your life
This is your time
What if the flame
Won’t last forever?
This is your here
This is your now
Let it be magical
What a way to end a great album. As much as you can “miss” a person you have never met, I do miss Ronnie James Dio. In many ways he’s been my friend for 30 years.
As a nice added touch, the liner notes include photos of just about every performer on this CD with Ronnie!
Of note: the Japanese edition has a bonus track by Dio Diciples: “Stand Up and Shout.” It also has Stryper’s version of “Heaven and Hell” from their 2011 album The Covering, which I reviewed here.