Monday, March 3, 2014
Released in November
Stryper proved that there was still gas in their creative tank in 2009 with the first-rate Murder By Pride album (I reviewed it here), which was followed up by two types of releases that are seemingly a late-in-their-career requirement for every 80s hard rock band: the covers album (2011's The Covering, an album head and shoulders above any covers collection I'd ever heard from a band, although it was saddled with embarrassingly amateurish cover artwork) and an album of the act's classic songs that've been re-recorded (early 2013's Second Coming, reconfirming the artistic pointlessness of a group reproducing faithful versions of earlier songs that will always take a distant backseat to the originals. This one was done for the same business reason that most of these kinds of albums are done, though - because the band wasn't making any money from sales of their back catalog due to a bad record deal). No More Hell To Pay marks the first time Stryper's original lineup of lead vocalist/guitarist Michael Sweet, guitarist Oz Fox, drummer Robert Sweet, and bassist Tim Gaines have put out a collection of new music since 1990's Against The Law album. [Any future references to "Sweet" in this review will be referring to Michael, the band's leader, main songwriter, and No More Hell To Pay's producer].
Rather than mellowing with age, Stryper seem to get heavier. They've always been heavy, mind you...their handful of late 80s pop-metal radio and video hits has always tended to obscure that fact, however. There's certainly nothing poppy about album opener "Revelation", with its ominous riffage and bleak Book of Revelation-referencing lyrics warning that "Sin is counted and the fee is tolled" and "Blood will run and turn the waters red". It's followed by the title track, which drops down the tempo from its predecessor, while losing none of the beefy presence of Robert Sweet's percussion and Gaines' bass, nor the six-string crunch and signature dual lead guitar harmonies of Fox and Sweet. As Sweet discusses in this recent interview, Stryper's newest album draws inspiration in its title, heaviness, and eye-catching album artwork from the band's best-known release, 1986's To Hell With The Devil. The foursome ratchets up the heavy level yet again with the rapid-fire delivery of "Saved By Love" (where Sweet's ridiculously broad vocal range hits intense levels that sound downright violent during parts of the choruses), "Legacy" (where the singer conversely shows one of his rare vocal limitations by unconvincingly pulling off the snarled lyrics during the verses), the fiery "Te Amo" (meaning "I love you" in Spanish), and album closer "Renewed", a track that reflects the strong influence of Judas Priest on the Christian outfit. The fitting "Jesus Is Just Alright", originally recorded by The Art Reynolds Singers in 1965 and later popularized by The Doobie Brothers, further demonstrates Stryper's knack for adding their own engaging spin on classic rock favourites. "The One" is No More Hell To Pay's lone subdued number, a solid guitar power ballad that inventively recycles the falsetto vocal melody from the song "Blue Bleeds Through" off Sweet's 2000 solo album, Truth. "Sticks & Stones", "Water Into Wine", and "Sympathy" adhere more to Stryper's melodic hard rock side, with the latter track dipping back into the sound of the band's Sunset Strip early days on the guitar, bass, and drum parts during the intro and verses, before smoothly transitioning into a memorable chorus that feels much more contemporary.
Sterling musicianship, great production, and just one weak track amongst its 12 songs ("Marching Into Battle") add up to No More Hell To Pay being the best hard rock or metal album I heard in 2013, maintaining the high standard reestablished on Murder By Pride. It arguably stands as Stryper's strongest album yet, an inspiring feat for a band that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Sweet's 2014 looks to be very busy - in conjunction with a Stryper tour, he's also releasing both a new solo album and autobiography in May.