Another review for this record by a member of the Karew? Really? Well…yes. Because we want to. And we can. And because we wanted to give more than one perspective on it. Plus, I like to sit with a record for a couple of weeks and not give any snap judgments. As a fan of progressive stuff, I like to find the nuances in the music. And let’s get the title out of the way…this review is not going to get into the controversial title. However, I personally do agree with the comments posted in the review by Doc already on this site. So here we go…
Now, let’s get down to what it’s really all about. The music. And no one has been doing it better for such a long time. You hear bands all the time talk about going back to their roots and failing to deliver. Well, Michael and the boys have done so without even advertising their intent to do so. Usually the first 2-3 albums from a band, at least in my perspective, turn out to be their best. Beyond that the pressures to produce hits and sell units win out and we are left with watered down, over-produced music that is bland for the remainder of a band’s catalogue, leaving fans longing for the good-old-days. Stryper 2.0 (Reborn and beyond) have brought the punch back to the band’s sound, and have continued to get heavier and leave the hair image behind. And dare I say, this one is their heaviest yet…and I like it! The guitars in particular stand out to me. There is a lot more “chunka-chunka” in the rhythm and arrangements this time around, reminiscent of the releases from the early years. Combine that with Michael staying away from “clean” vocals and you have the band still completely sounding like Stryper, but continuing to push their musical boundaries forward, without leaving the fans behind.
“Take it to the Cross” starts the album off at a blistering pace. Lots of crunch and riffage batter your ears throughout while maintaining the Stryper sound. Then you get thrown a curveball…did I hear growling in the chorus? Why yes…yes I did. And it works here. I’m not gonna lie, the first time I heard this chorus I hated it. Michael’s quick screams reminded me of Dale Thompson belting out “Metal Might” from Bride’s Live to Die era and seemed out of place. But the more I listened, the more I understood what he was trying to do: juxtaposing the growls to make everyone a little more comfortable with that sound underneath. I’m still not a big fan of the chorus here, but I get it, and the song still rocks.
Next up is “Sorry” and there is nothing to apologize for. This song is flat out top notch. Michael is in top form here with his vocals. There is a great crunch and groove going on throughout with a chorus that is catchy and hits you with a wall of BGV’s. This one is a Stryper instant classic.
Lost is the 3rd track and, again, the pace is quick and full of groove. The galloping bass work on this track is great and gives it a lot of depth. I personally wish the chorus kept up the speed of the verses here, but you can’t help but admire the way Michael belts it out. How he can still sing in that range after all these years is beyond me.
The title track is next. It is not a typical Stryper song. Really, I feel a ton of AC/DC type blues rock in this track. Close your eyes and it would be easy to imagine (with slightly altered arrangements) Brian Johnson screeching this one out with Angus and Malcom Young grinding away on guitars in the back. However, those similarities end when the trademark team vocals kick in on the chorus. And what a chorus!…as this might be the sing along track of the album. In their heyday this song no doubt would have been a huge hit anthem on radio and MTV. That is not to say it sounds dated. It’s not at all. It rocks along with Stryper’s updated sound. Title or not, this one is a keeper.
The 5th song, “You Don’t Even Know Me,” is a mid-paced rocker where Michael takes to task those who are two faced, judging others while sinking to their own devious lows. “You don’t even know me, but you think you’re a god. You continue to show me that you’re only a fraud.” If I was forced at gunpoint to pick a least favorite track, this would probably be the one, but that doesn’t mean it’s weak. I’m sure many reading that statement love this song and wonder if I’m off my meds, and that’s OK. Music is personal. What I like others don’t. And that what makes it so fun to talk about, discuss and debate.
And now on to to the 6th track, “The Valley.” I love this one. I mean LOVE this one. I catch myself singing the chorus walking through the halls at work. Certainly my favorite on the album. The 23rd Psalm is the chorus and this tune contains everything you love about this band. It’s heavy. It has dual guitars riffing over an Egyptian type theme. Michael’s vocals are gritty and powerful, and he sings like he wants to rip the mic off the stand. The drumming is bombastic and really gives this song a serious foundation. And then that chorus! Luscious. Without a doubt an instant top 10 in the band’s entire song catalog.
“Sea of Thieves” is a rollicking, rocking guitar picking good time. I like how you can really hear Oz isolated on the background vocals leading up to the chorus. (Does he ever get enough credit for his voice?) I really like the breakdown in the middle of this tune too. A solid effort.
“Beautiful” starts with Robert beating the skins into submission, followed by some crunchy riffs, leading into a signature Michael Sweet chorus, which is lush and full of layers. Another one of my faves on this disc.
“Can’t Live Without Your Love” is the closest thing to a ballad on this disc. Just a hint of keyboard in the opening and chorus, but really it chooses its mood with understated guitars (yet with a hint of crunch under the surface) setting the pace, once again pulling us into a chorus like only Stryper can. Michael does not sing this one like a ballad either, keeping with the throaty vocals found throughout the record.
“Own Up” is a dirty, gritty little number in which the groove builds as the song progresses. The chorus keeps the song moving at a nice pace and is just fun. I am pretty sure I even heard cowbell!
The last tune, “The Devil Doesn’t Live Here,” is a headbanging closer, full of crunch, pace, and nifty riffage, with Stryper proclaiming loudly what they are all about and is a fine way to finish things off. “The Devil doesn’t live here, only Jesus. Sold out with no fear, only to Jesus.”
Overall this might just be their best effort since THWTD (wait…what? Really?). To me, it has the best elements of NMHTP and Fallen, and takes them another step forward. This is a metal album, pure and simple. Not really any filler tracks (amazing considering Michael says he wrote these songs in about 10 days). The songs are guitar driven that hit hard. Michael Sweet’s voice is preternatural. He sings higher and harder than I can remember and sounds like he is still in his 20’s. I know some people are not happy because Tim is no longer in the band, but I can assure you that the bass work here is not lacking and in some cases really drives the music. If I wanted to nitpick, there could be a few more hooks in the choruses. And there is that whole title issue. But make no mistake, Stryper have proven they have a lot left to offer and are not slowing down. They are just starting to rev the engines.
(Frontiers Records) Release Date: April 20, 2018