Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stryper - Murder By Pride [music review]

* Released in July
A Stryper review? Really? Man, these Christian metallers with the yellow and black attack were uncool as hell back in their prime 20 years ago - why pay any attention to their latest release? Hey, we don't discriminate here at Mediaboy Musings. Cool or hip doesn't equal good and Murder By Pride is better than good. It's the band's second studio release since reforming back in 2004 after disbanding in the early 90s. During that hiatus frontman Michael Sweet put out a number of solo albums, all of them unremarkable save for the stellar Truth, from 2000. In my opinion, he's always been one of the better hard rock/metal vocalists who has never gotten his due, probably because of, you know, the God thing. Regardless, the guy's got phenomenal vocal range that occasionally brings to mind the unlikely comparison to Rob Halford of the most certainly not God-touting Judas Priest. This further brings to mind an interesting anecdote of the time I saw Stryper in 1990 at a Toronto club called (appropriately) Rock 'N Roll Heaven. The band was going through its secular phase, which probably paved the way for them being slightly more open to the idea of inviting Halford, in town for rehearsals on Judas Priest's then-final tour, onstage for a duet. Talk about surreal.
My expectations for Murder By Pride were fairly modest given the mediocrity of the reunion album Reborn, but this was one of those CDs that immediately kicked my ass. No repeat listenings required to find the different layers and dimensions - it's all there, right out of the box (I can now hear the question being sarcastically asked: "Stryper has layers and dimensions?"). "Eclipse For The Son" delivers a high-energy opening full of prog rock-influenced stops and starts and classic Stryper double lead guitar harmonies. Don't hold the cheesy double entendre of the title against them too much - the music redeems the poor title. From there, it's a hard rock steamroll through the following eleven tracks, save for the ballad "Alive". It wouldn't be a Stryper album without a ballad, would it? "Alive" is fairly standard and generic in its structure and instrumental delivery, with strings right where you expect them and standard drum fills. Sweet's heartfelt vocals elevate it to something more, though, and not just because the subject matter is about his wife, who recently lost a battle with cancer. Speaking of Stryper ballads, the band does an imaginative reworking of their own "My Love (I'll Always Show)", transforming it from a slow, paint-by-numbers 80s power ballad to a lively grinding jam that wouldn't be out of place as the soundtrack for a burlesque strip show.
Murder By Pride is simply a proper, near-flawless hard rock album with, in addition to the fine vocals, in-your-face guitars and drums that shake your stomach ("Alive" aside). The latter comes courtesy of one of the best drummers around, Kenny Aronoff, who has played with everyone from John Mellencamp to Smashing Pumpkins to being the house percussionist at Barack Obama's Inaugural Celebration. He's as pro as it gets and helped elevate Sweet's Truth album to another level. Original drummer Robert Sweet (Michael's stepbrother) will tour with the band, but was unable to commit to recording this time around due to undisclosed family responsibilities.
Stryper's Christian message will be a turnoff for many, which is unfortunate. There's such a strong level of musicianship and great songwriting that the lyrical content isn't at the forefront anyway (at least for me). As a matter of fact, many of their songs have always had a level of interchangeability between lyrical references to loving God or Jesus or just loving a woman, which has always been helpful to secularists in not being overwhelmed by their religious agenda. Count me in that group. If the lyrics are something you pay a little more attention to then a faithful cover of Boston's "Peace Of Mind" (featuring Boston guitarist Tom Scholz) provides an interesting "reverse" interpretation of originally secular lyrics into a religious context. Michael Sweet toured with Boston as a guest vocalist in 2008.
Rating: 9/10