Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stryper - No More Hell To Pay (2013)

Every band that has had any measure of success has "that record" that they can't escape, the one that all future releases are compared to, and the benchmark by which fans judge what they do.  It's an inescapable part of human nature to set a standard by which all future actions or work will be stood up against to see whether or not it surpasses past glories.  For some bands, that is a blessing, as they are able to record material that meets or exceeds the release they are judged by.  For others, it's a curse, as fans never seem to be pleased enough with subsequent albums and always fall back to "that record" as their creative peak, even if their songwriting prowess has improved.  For Stryper, that record is arguably their 1986 album "To Hell With the Devil".

I am of the opinion that while Stryper never topped that album, the 1988 follow-up "In God We Trust" wasn't nearly the disappointment that some people have claimed.  Firstly, about half of the tracks are among the best Stryper ever recorded, that being the 3 barn burners "In God We Trust", "The Writings on the Wall" and album closer "The Reign", along with power ballad "Lonely" and mid-tempo rocker "Keep the Fire Burning".  The other half of the album did sag with lesser tracks, most of which tried to hard to replicate the sing-songy mid-tempo success of some of THWTD's radio fare.  In the end, however, it was still a highly listenable and enjoyable release.  "Against the Law" took the band in a decidedly more hard rock direction, and they didn't really look back to the more balanced approach of pop metal and melodic metal until more recently, with the 2011's release of "The Covering", a scorching collection of cover tunes of mostly melodic heavy metal classics that the band grew up enjoying.  Building on that album's credibility, and the strength of the "Second Coming" CD of re-recorded Stryper classics, "No More Hell To Pay" has momentum to spare, but is it enough to propel the album into becoming a Stryper classic?

As a longtime Stryper fan, I can answer that with a resounding YES!  Michael Sweet has stated in a recent interview that "No More Hell To Pay" was the album Stryper should have recorded to follow up "To Hell With the Devil", and I'd say that's an accurate statement.  This record has that classic Stryper feel and sound to it, with an obviously more modern production and including elements the band likely wouldn't have included in an album during the late 1980's.  Still, the lion's share of the songs here could have been recorded during that time and sounded pretty good as a follow-up to the band's breakthrough release.  There are some updated production techniques, some vocal touches, and slight nods to modern rock here and there that would not have been present, but all in all, this is a worthy successor to their 1986 record.  The biggest strength here is the songwriting and consistency of the material.  There aren't as many absolute standout tracks here as there were on "To Hell With the Devil", but the album's overall quality from track to track is improved over that release's song list.

Oz and Michael's guitars have that familiar "Stryper sound", as Michael has expounded upon in videos and interviews, but with modern production techniques, the sound is fuller and thicker than it ever was.  There's a touch less bite in the tone because of the increased weight of the overall guitar sound, but it's a good trade-off because it comes across as heavier than the band has been since that time.  In fact, the guitar sound here, along with the riffs, and the songs themselves, makes this arguably the band's heaviest album.  Solo work is as strong as ever, and while there's a bit less of the band's trademark harmonized soloing going on, everything sounds great and the solos work well within the framework of the songs.  Robert's drum work is as good here as anything he's brought to the table before.  While Stryper's production has always favored Robert's drums and given him a more weighty sound than many of the band's peers, there's such a balance here that hasn't been struck on a Stryper album before because the rest of the band has as much weight as the drum sound.  Robert is still high enough in the mix that his drums are still quite prevalent and punchy, but it's nice to hear the rest of the band's instruments on nearly equal footing.  There's lots of energy in Robert's performance here, and he hasn't lost a beat over the years, his playing is as strong as ever.  And it's great to have Tim back on bass again, after a number of years out of the band.  Tracy Ferrie was a welcome addition to Stryper, but let's face it: if you're going to attempt a "return to form" and sound like your old albums, getting the band back together with original members is always preferred, and adding Tim back into the mix was a good choice.  His bass rumbles along in the mix nicely, and he shows why he was a bit underrated during the band's heyday, as he does more than just follow along with the riffs and play one-note rhythms underneath, but adds a bit of harmony at times, and brings a little extra energy when needed, like in "Sympathy".

Many vocalists who utilized the upper registers of the tenor vocal range often lose that ability over the years, partially due to age, but also often due to destroying their natural instrument through drink (Joe Elliot) and/or drugs (Vince Neil, anyone?).  Michael Sweet has, thankfully, avoided most of those pitfalls and remains a top notch vocalist.  He can still hit the highs and do the high pitched wails, even if they're a bit tempered now compared to what he pulled off in his younger days.  That said, he brings an impressive performance here that has the dynamics and nuance of his solo material, while bringing the energy, grit, and spirit of what he's done in Stryper over the years.  Lyrically, the songs are as bold and up front as ever, though there are some additional topics covered here aside from looking to Jesus and love relationships, such as the pain of ridicule ("Sticks and Stones"), looking beyond our mortal lives ("Legacy"), and some Revelations-inspired lyrics with opener "Revelation" and the title track.

The thing about this album that I appreciate so much is that it's just so consistent.  Most every Stryper album before this has had at least 1 or 2 tracks that could be considered filler, or just don't match up to the songwriting of the other material.  I feel as though every track here is essential to the experience.  "The One" is the band's best ballad, and fits in nicely with the other material.  "Sticks and Stones" and "Water Into Wine" are both mid-tempo rockers that follow the album's triumvirate of heavy tracks, "Legacy", "Marching Into Battle" (being arguably the album's centerpiece), and "Te Amo", but they don't feel out of place or lacking when following those tracks.  The band has taken heat for their cover of "Jesus Is Just Alright" as being out of place, but I feel like it's a perfect companion to the original material and describes in few words what the band is, and has always been all about.  My first impression of the title track was that it was a bit slow and plodding, when they initially released the video, but after repeated listens, it's as stuck in my head as the other melodies on the album.

If you've never been a Stryper fan because of the cheese factor or because they're just not heavy enough for you, this new record is one that could change your mind ever so slightly, because they've truly made a melodic, yet heavy album that is better and more consistent than the bulk of their discography.  Does it scale the same heights as the 1986 album it echoes?  I would say it does, though that album has a couple tracks that may help keep it's place firmly cemented as the band's best overall work.  Regardless, "No More Hell To Pay" is the best album a Stryper fan could have hoped for in the year 2013, and certainly one that I will be coming back to nearly as often as I get the urge to listen to Stryper.  Highly recommended!


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bloodgood - Dangerously Close (2013)

Bands from the 80's coming back and reactivating has become more than a trend in the last few years.  Indeed, it has become cliche, to the point where every nickel and dime group that made any impact is getting back together to try and make another run on the 'nostalgia circuit'.  Fans of any band can't be faulted for wanting their favorite group to come back and make another record, go on tour, etc. because we all have that desire to 'relive the good old days' from time to time, and old favorites reuniting to record, tour, and so on, help scratch that itch.  Most of the time it's a cash grab, and fans eat it up even if they're aware of it, because it's a favorite and they want to support them.  Sometimes, though, the comeback is completely legitimate when a band was truly broken up, away from the scene, with little or no indication that something was going to happen to bring that back.  I'd argue that Bloodgood is a prime example of the latter.

Bloodgood broke up in 1993, after an 8-year run, 5 studio albums, 2 live albums, and VHS releases of those 2 live records, complete with theatrical performances, and a compilation of singles and material from several albums.  In particular, their "Detonation" album garnered high praise and worldwide acclaim for it's quality songs, high energy, and emotional material.  The band moved in a less metallic direction after that, with "Rock In a Hard Place" bringing a more diversified sound, and "Out of the Darkness" continuing with that trend after the departure of original guitarist David Zaffiro.  The band's final studio album, "All Stand Together", suffered somewhat from having too many tracks and not enough "rock" in the mix.  The band's comeback album, "Dangerously Close", rectifies that by practically forgetting that album exists and providing what could have been a direct followup to "Out of the Darkness", with surprisingly good results after a 22-year hiatus.

Right off the bat you know this is a modern album by the production, sound quality, and guitar sound, but the songwriting and style hearkens back to an earlier time of hard rock music, not the overly compressed and artificially heavy sound of a band like Nickelback.  Instead, we get real hard rock and melodic heavy metal music from a veteran of the sound, and it sounds genuine and real.  Too often, new bands that play this style come along with production that makes the music sound too "plastic" to try and capitalize on modern production techniques, but ends up taking away from the music by having too much of an "in your face" sound.  This record strikes a nice balance between a modern sound, a heavier guitar element, and that more "organic" sound that helps music like this feel less like a product and more like real art from real artists.  Everything here is well produced, the instruments all sound good and come through in the mix (including Michael's bass!), and the levels are appropriate for the material.

Paul Jackson and Oz Fox's guitars have a nice crunch in the heavier parts, and though they have a modern feel to them, they feels like good hard rock and melodic metal guitar should, with enough whine and wail when the sound calls for it.  There's some real nice dual guitar work here and there, with some layered soloing and harmonized riffs that work really well.  I kind of wish they had capitalized on that a little more, but what's here works quite well.  I also like the fact that it's not just one guitar tone or texture through the album - they use various levels of distortion and crunch, as well as some nice clean guitar work (such as in "Father Father") that brings more variety to the table.  Unlike "Rock In a Hard Place", Michael's bass is loud and clear here.  In spots, it almost feels like too much, as if the bass is a little too prominent in the mix, but he can be forgiven for wanting to be out there, given the lack of bass in some of their material, and the prominence of bass guitar in modern hard rock and commercial metal mixes.  As it stands, he sounds as good as ever, and adds that extra thump as would be expected.  Returning skinsman Kevin Whistler provides a solid, workmanlike performance here with a couple nice surprises, such as the double-bass work in "Bread Alone".

Les Carlsen is in fine form here, and frankly, sounds way better than any rock vocalist at his age has a right to.  You'd think he'd lose some of his range or ability over time, and while he doesn't wail at the same level here as he did on "Detonation" or the debut album, the material doesn't really call for that.  Instead, he still hits the high notes with aplomb and shows he has a sense of dynamics, as well as adding that emotional resonance that has made past performances so interesting to listen to.  His unique vocal sound is still his own, and he continues to bring that element to the Bloodgood sound that helps give the band their own sound and feel.  The way he flawlessly double-tracks his vocals as well gives the vocal sound on the album that extra something.

I don't have any specific criticisms of the album, per se, other than the fact that leading off the album with "Lamb of God" is perhaps slightly underwhelming, given the strength of the other material.  It's a mid-tempo rocker with a simple hook, but it's not the strongest track on the album, nor is it the strongest musical statement.  Otherwise, the songwriting here is pretty strong, as compared to the band's back catalog, and they've created a winning album here that stands up well against what I'd call the second half of their discography.  Comparing this to early works like "Detonation" is like comparing apples and watermelon - two variations of a similar theme, but different enough that they really aren't wholly comparable.  If you prefer the more metal side of Bloodgood, spin the first couple records, because chances are, they're not returning to that sound.  However, if "Rock In an Hard Place" or "Out of the Darkness" are among your favorites, consider "Dangerously Close" in the same league as those records, and pick up a copy to support the band. These are some catchy tunes that I've been spinning for weeks, and they haven't got old yet.  Recommended.


Monday, February 10, 2014

Persuader - The Fiction Maze (2013)

There are times when a band is labeled as a copycat, for better or worse.  Sometimes they deserve such labeling, and sometimes they make enough of their own mark that such branding is unfair.  Either way, being called a clone can often bring attention to a band they may not have garnered otherwise.  If the band is truly a knock-off, this extra attention is usually short-lived, unless they continue to push the envelope of carbon copying.  If not, and the band has made its own mark, then typically those accusations melt away and the group can win its own acclaim.

Such is the case with Persuader, who at times have been labeled as a bit of a Blind Guardian clone.  Truth be told, Persuader was probably not seen as much of a BG clone as vocalist Jens Carlsson's other (former) project Savage Circus, given that band's debut including former BG drummer Thomen Stauch, and Jens' vocals sounding a lot like BG crooner Hansi Kürsch.  In fact, at times, Jens sounds like Hansi so much that it's uncanny.  Nevertheless, Persuader has paved its own path upon the power metal landscape, and are deserving of their own accolades due to the strength of their material.  Their latest album, "The Fiction Maze" shows just why that's the case.

While the band's debut "The Hunter" was a tad raw and rough around the edges, it showed a hungry band with energy that was trying to make their mark.  "Evolution Purgatory" cleaned up the production and tightened the sound, and "When Eden Burns" pumped up the power and intensity a bit while honing the songwriting skills.  In the 8-year interim, these guys haven't lost one ounce of ability, power, or panache.  The band's 4th album, "The Fiction Maze", takes the elements of the previous album and tempers the sound ever so slightly while increasing the melodicism and making a fairly memorable set of songs.  As far as I'm concerned, this is their best album yet.

The album starts out very strong with a triumvirate of songs that play to the strengths they display throughout the album: memorable melodies, hard-hitting lyrics that take the usual fantasy fair of the power metal style into a darker, grittier place, and an absolutely tight presentation.  In the weeks leading up to writing this review, I've had "One Lifetime" running through my head off and on at random.  The chorus' indelible melody will etch itself into your subconscious if you let it.  "War" keeps things rolling with another solid and melodious tune, and "The Fiction Maze" really ups the ante with the band's trademark combo of growled vocals mixed with Jens' gritty tone and excellent range, as well as a relatively epic sound.  "Deep in the Dark" also weighs in with a successful formula for the more "power ballad" approach that doesn't sink into endless cheese.  The rest of the material follows suit, creating a dynamic and full album experience that doesn't quite reach the heights of Blind Guardian's most lauded material, but still earns a place among the best albums of the last 3 or 4 years, and certainly the best of their career thus far.

As with the previous release, the guitar sound Daniel Sundbom and Emil Norberg bring to the mix is thick, hard-hitting, and crunchy.  There are times when the sound is a bit less heavy than you'd expect, but for most of the record, they bring the heavy and then some.  The guys have a knack for writing riffs that combine catchiness and rhythmic energy in a way that doesn't take away from the power of the sound.  As well the solo work, when present, is skillfully played and melodically inclined, and never sounds like they're just wantonly throwing notes out there.  That doesn't mean they don't have flair or style; far from it.  Bass work by Fredrik Hedström is also skilled, with him keeping pace with Daniel and Emil and sometimes adding that extra layer of emphasis underneath things.  His bass occasionally gets lost in the heavier moments, but his low end is a welcome addition here.  Efraim Juntunen is a talented drummer, able to transition seamlessly between drumming in a groove and belting out lightning fast double-bass and faster rhythms and fills.  His drumming fits the material very well, and never feels like he is trying to steal the spotlight or overdo it.  I'm not sure who provides 

As mentioned before, Jens Carlsson bears more than a passing resemblance to Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian.  This is both a good and bad thing for the band, as it immediately gives listeners a reference point, but may be distracting for some.  Personally, I don't think it's a problem, as Jens uses a grittier approach than what Hansi has used in years, and the band's overall sound is heavier and more aggressive than what BG has done of late.  In addition, not everything these guys do is of the level of "epic" that Hasni and his cohorts put out, so to some fans who tire of Blind Guardian's overly bombastic approach, this album's mild refrain from that tendency may be a welcome approach.  Since there's no indication anywhere that he doesn't provide them, I can only assume Jens handles the growled vocals as well, which is both impressive and shows his vocal ability and stamina being able to move back and forth between the two styles.

Ultimately, if you're a fan of Persuader's material thus far, you'll enjoy this album as much as what came before, perhaps even more due to the increase in songwriting ability and quality of material here.  If you're not, this may not convert you, unless you felt like the band's ability to write songs was somewhat limited, in which case, I would recommend giving this album a listen.  For those who think all power metal falls into the "flower metal" category, this album is one that should change that impression somewhat, because nothing here sounds overly happy or cheerful, and the overall tone of the album is darker and more foreboding than much of the power metal out there.  It's certainly heavier than a lot of other bands of the style.  A few more tweaks to the songwriting and even catchier melodies in the songs and these guys could be considered to be on the top shelf of the style alongside the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Rhapsody et al, Sonata Arctica, Primal Fear, etc.  In the meantime, I'd highly recommend this fantastic slab of driving metal.