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!


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