|Musical Style: Heavy Metal||Produced By:|
|Record Label: Barren Cross Music||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2013||Artist Website: Barren Cross|
|Tracks: 18||Rating: No Quote|
It had to happen eventually. A Christian metal band from the eighties finally recorded a live album in the manner it is supposed to be done. Yes, there have been several close calls and near misses over the years, including turn of the century live albums from Leviticus (Live At Bobfest, 2003) and Stryper (7 Weeks: Live In America, 2003), both of which were polished and professional but came across more as collections of live songs as opposed to capturing the groups set in its entirety. Bloodgood had the right idea with its dual 1990 live releases Alive In America and Shakin The World’, but due to taking a “rock theater” approach, with corresponding designed sets and props with dancers and actors, the two better lent to being viewed (on VHS/DVD) as opposed to heard (CD). Barren Cross’ Hotter Than Hell! Live (1990) caught the group at the height of its Atomic Arena prime but also suffered from its share of raw and unrefined qualities. Likewise, Bride was at its early to mid-nineties peak on Across The Border (1994) and Snakes Alive (2005), albeit not without exhibiting some rough edges as well.
Barren Cross, with its second live album from December 2013 entitled Birth Pangs, puts them all to shame. It starts with how Birth Pangs includes the groups full performance from its 2012 Elements Of Rock show in Switzerland and places all 18 tracks onto 2 CD’s. Hence, credit the group for not cutting songs in order to allow a single CD release instead. The double live album approach, as a result, hearkens back to the 70’s, an era when live albums were much more popular (and could not help but enhance a bands popularity in the process). Sadly, double live albums are rare in the Christian hard music scene with only a handful having done it correctly. DeGarmo & Key’s No Turning Back Live (from its extended jam sessions of shorter album cuts) and Rez Band’s XX Years Live (featuring one song from each of the group’s albums up to that point) set the standard, which other live albums from Christian bands have struggled to meet up until now.
Birth Pangs features choice cuts from each of the four Barren Cross studio albums in addition to two new songs and one previously unreleased. For those not familiar, Barren Cross hit the scene in 1986 with its Star Song debut Rock For The King prior to signing with mainstream label Enigma for follow up releases Atomic Arena (1988) and State Of Control (1989). The group closed out its career in 1994 on Rugged Records with Rattle Your Cage. Of note is how Birth Pangs encompasses songs Barren Cross either does not normally play live or which it has not performed in over 25 years.
Barren Cross hits the stage at Elements Of Rock literally on fire and in top form, almost as if had spent the previous month rehearsing non-stop. The effort shows in that three of the first five tracks are some of the groups most intricate and progressive: “Living Dead”, “The Stage Of Intensity” and “Two Thousand Years”. In coming in at between seven to nine minutes each, the three allow Barren Cross to show off its technical licks and chops in abundance, particulars that cannot be accurately reproduced onstage without a certain amount of confident acumen and preparation.
In between Barren Cross delivers “Close To The Edge” and “The Unsuspecting”. Former, a choice Atomic Arena track, finds rhythm section of Jim LaVerde and Steve Whitaker the focal point with piercing bass lines and battering drums upholding a song bringing the perfect joining of heaviness and melody. Latter, off Rattle Your Cage, an aggressive grinder in which Michael Drive exhibits the full range to his voice, from lower register grit and angst to full on Dickinson-like power and charisma. Yes, Iron Maiden comparisons have been invited as a result, with Barren Cross a bit heavier than many of its contemporaries (my opinion) in upholding a straight on metal sound that walks a fine line between the power, melodic and progressive side of things.
Birth Pangs proceeds to take a nostalgic turn with five songs from Barren Cross’ earlier repertoire. The first, “Return Of The Light”, was recorded for the groups second demo and never previously performed live (it is also the first song Drive wrote as a musician). Musically, it brings the trademark Barren Cross heaviness and technical milieu with its multiple time changes and instrumental breakdowns (sort of like “Just A Touch” but a bit more melodic). Quality is such it could have easily have been the tenth song on Rock For The King.
The four that follow originally appeared on the Believe EP (1985). “Believe” translates well live with its raucous near speed metal lacings, while “Light The Flame” contrasts from a slower acoustic ballad-like approach that always lends to a live setting. “He Loves You” maintains the slower pace but in a bluesy metal package, with guitarist Ray Parris displaying his abilities with a lengthy run of lead guitar (a live album would not be complete without at least one long guitar solo, right?). Finally, power metal slugger “Dying Day” closes out the set of older material in highlighting the inherit Barren Cross live energy.
Remainder of the set consists of selections from the groups final three albums intermingled with the two new songs. State Of Control is represented by “Bigotry Man”, delivering the greater forthright tempo live but upholding the same bottom heavy and crunch-laden focus. Two more appear from Rattle Your Cage. The wonderful melodic metal of “Hear I Am” extends past six minutes with its expanded bass guitar solo opening, while “Rattle Your Cage” maintains its heavy set and menacing presence. Three from Atomic Arena close the show. Barren Cross hits on all cylinders for the churning but catchy “Deadlock” and ups the momentum even further on “Cultic Regimes” and “Killers”, a pair of borderline speed metal energy bursts that come across as if written with a live setting in mind.
Of the new songs, “Walking With God” represents an acoustic instrumental which Drives introduces as a musical story about how “walking with God” applies in terms of both the good and bad times of life. “Whitewashed Love” proves a discordant and active piece along the lines of “Cultic Regimes” and “Killers” but with touches of the acoustic. In similar fashion to how Barren Cross has touched upon social issues on past lyrics (including abortion, cults, terrorism, substance abuse and suicide) “Whitewashed Love” focuses on preachers that mislead the flock due to a compromised and/or watered downs message.
While track listing is solid overall, I wish room had been made for Atomic Arena favorites such as “Imaginary Music” and “In The Eye Of The Fire”. Both, however, can be found on Hotter Than Hell! Live. When listened to side-by-side, I cannot help but pick up the greater tightness and energy in the bands performance on Birth Pangs. In no way does this denigrate Hotter Than Hell! Live, which due to being recorded at the end of the Atomic Arena tour, Barren Cross was understandably tired.
Adding to the “live setting feel” is the ongoing banter between the group and audience, including the important introduction of each band member (a live album staple, which all too often ends up overlooked). Also of note is the accurate manner in which the audience has been recorded- just enough but not too the point of overriding. Some live albums place the audience so low in the mix they do not come across “live” at all; others exaggerate the audience to the extent it is obvious canned audience tracks are being used (not so either way with Birth Pangs).
Production, as a matter of fact, is done “just right”- professionally recorded but not doctored on the back end with so much polish as to rob the group of its inherit live energy. All the instrumentation stands out as a result, with cleanly defined guitar leads and bass lines melding with an even mix of rhythm guitar and vocals.
Birth Pangs showcases everything you would want from a live album: Well thought out selection of songs from Barren Cross’ back catalog; delivering the entire concert and not just a handful of live songs placed on a single CD; inspired performance from the group that successfully captures its live form. It is the latter which cannot help but impress, particularly when factoring how fresh and invigorated the eighties Christian metal bands that have reunited in recent years sound. Hence, along similar lines as Sacred Warrior, Stryper, Deliverance and Bloodgood let’s hope Barren Cross also records an album of near material in the near future.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Intro” (:24), “Living Dead” (7:15), “Stage Of Intensity” (9:16), “Close To The Edge” (5:15), “The Unsuspecting” (5:36), “Two Thousand Years” (8:16), “Return Of The Light” (5:16), “Believe” (2:25), “Light The Flame” (5:54), “He Loves You” (5:33), “Dying Day” (3:23), “Bigotry Man” (4:37), “Here I Am” (6:12), “Waking With God” (4:19), “Whitewashed Love” (2:58), “Rattle Your Cage” (4:15), “Deadlock” (4:30), “Cultic Regimes” (3:58), “Killers” (3:44)
Michael Drive - Lead Vocals
Ray Parris - Guitars
Jim Laverde - Bass
Steve Whitaker – Drum