|Musical Style: Heavy Metal||Produced By: Dino & John Elefante|
|Record Label: Enigma||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 1988||Artist Website: Barren Cross|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 85%|
|Running Time: 43:12|
After parting ways with Star Song following the release of its 1986 debut Rock For The King, Barren Cross signed with Enigma Records when the label became impressed by the manner in which it ranked above Metallica on the CMJ reports at certain radio stations. Prior to recording its 1988 Enigma debut Atomic Arena, however, Barren Cross placed the track “Dead Lock” on the California Metal compilation, a number reflecting the growth and maturity gained by the band in its songwriting since the time of Rock For The King. Barren Cross, if anything, continues that trend on Atomic Arena, an album featuring some of the finest moments of the bands career in the area of songwriting. The melodic metal of “Imaginary Music” and driving “Close To The Edge”, for instance, stand out with their catchy chorus hooks and “In The Eye Of The Fire” and “Dead Lock”, two standout pieces reflecting a classic metal feel, an abundance of guitar driven initiative. A speed metal and thrash influence can be found in “Killers Of The Unborn” and “Cultic Regimes” while “Living Dead” – a heavy duty track as you will ever find – almost borders on progressive metal. The versatility of the bands songwriting skills, at the same time, can be found in the metal worship anthem “King Of Kings” along with the customary ballad “Heaven Or Nothing”. My overall feeling is that Barren Cross delivers a lot of variety on Atomic Arena but, due to the quality of the songwriting, the albums fails to turn into a cumbersome listen.
Frontman Mike Lee, who helped compose seven of the albums compositions, returns with his charismatic Dickinson-influenced lead vocal style, displaying the full range of this voice on “Imaginary Music” while “Killers Of The Unborn” finds him adding an aggressive element to his delivery. Guitarist Ray Parris makes his presence felt as well, best exhibiting his fast fingered lead work on “Terrorist Child” and “Dead Lock”. However, it is the resounding bass lines of Jim LaVerde and Steve Whitakers steady drumming that ultimately puts in place the solid foundation for the bands sound. To understand my point, just listen to the dominant performance put forth by the two on “In The Eye Of The Fire” and “Living Dead”.
The production team of John and Dino Elefante add just the right amount of clean sounding polish without taking away from the bands natural raw energy. The bass and lead guitar both cleanly rise above the mix and underscore a crisp sounding rhythm guitar. The drums pack the needed punch in being placed forward in the mix.
Barren Cross, in addition, must not only be commended for the choice of topics it addresses here – ranging from abortion, suicide, cults and substance abuse – but the informative manner in which they present them.
Album opener “Imaginary Music” stands out with its superlative melody line. Driven forward by an edgy rhythm guitar backed by a pronounced bass line, “Imaginary Music” culminates for a catchy chorus with a hook of a near commercial capacity. Parris steps forward with a minute of riveting lead guitar work. “Imaginary Music” talks about the phony and fleeting fame that comes with being a rock star:
Image you are standing on a stage
The beams of light surround you like a cage
Trapped inside a dream from down below
You think you've got it all, what do you know
Introduced to several seconds of open air rhythm guitar, “Killers Of The Unborn” immediately launches into a driving guitar riff bordering on speed metal. After keyboards accentuate the song at the end of its first verse, it moves on to a chorus delivered with an abundance of hard hitting authority. “Killers Of The Unborn” was written from the standpoint of a baby being aborted:
I am a child about to die
My mother does not hear my cry
The operation's over
I'm now in pieces in a garbage bag
The song, ultimately, conveys the forgiveness offered in Christ:
The scar of guilt she's going to wear
But He can forgive her
If she gives her life to the Saviour
On “In The Eye Of The Fire” LaVerde puts in place some of the most massive bass lines this reviewer has heard. The song opens, appropriately, to a bass guitar solo before a pounding riff reinforced by double bass propels it to a brief but powerful chorus highlighted by shouted vocal harmonies. “In The Eye Of The Fire” conveys an anti-suicide message:
Feels like no hope is ever to be
You have been hurting to long
Why not let make God make you strong
Leads you to joy, find Him and see, dying isn't the key
Beware of the lie, that it's happy to die
Wait out your strife but don't end your life
The lyrics to “Terrorist Child”, almost prophetic in light of recent current events, deserve to be included in full:
See the fire of a burning rage
Teach a class full of kids to hate
Pledge allegiance to an unknown cause
A fight they know nothing of
Terrorist child: if you only knew
You were taken and brainwashed only to kill
Terrorist child: your days are few
And the blood that you shed will come back to you
The playground is their battlefield
The army-game they play is real
No fun in their little lives
Only trained to die
A crisp rhythm guitar drives “Terrorist Child” through its verse portions hard and heavy, the song not culminating until it obtains a sharp sounding chorus advancing at a spirited upbeat tempo. Parris contributes several seconds of the albums best melodic flavored lead guitar work.
The melody to “Close To The Edge” ranks with “Imaginary Music” as the albums finest. Several seconds of slowly moving guitar harmony begins the song before it picks up in pace for the anthem-like riff that stands in support of its verse portions. Tapering off, “Close To The Edge” moves on to a driving chorus giving rise to an abundance of refuse to go away appeal. Parris’ soloing leads the way through an instrumental section ending to a blend of rhythm guitar and keyboards.
“Deadlock” is by far the albums strongest track. Initiated by a drum solo, “Deadlock” takes off to an ardent rhythm guitar that moves to the front of the mix in conjunction with Lee’s commanding voice. As the song gains impetus, it arrives at a chorus bolstered in an energetic manner by vocal harmonies. A fiery guitar solo brings out the best in a number dealing with substance abuse:
Deadlock: crawling into the dark
They're in a deadlock: before they realize they're caught
Hot steel the pipe's never cold anymore
The more you feel the more you can't let go
Bang goes your body now- cocaine
Harmless though it seems, it starts just like a dream but it ends
“Cultic Regimes” – a three minute all out speed metal assault – gets underway to several seconds of insane laughter before proceeding through its verse portions to a double bass driven riff. A chorus that can border on the repetitious, on the other hand, prevents the song from ranking with my favorite tracks here. That being said, those whose musical tastes stray towards the thrash side of things will find a home here. While the lyrics to “Cultic Regimes” can come across a bit blunt, they do not fail in hitting the songs message home:
Money to scheme
False religions beware
Caught in the grip
Caught in the spit
It's all going to burn, it's a snare
Worship the god of your choice
Is he asleep? Where's his voice?
My God raised up from the dead
Is yours in bed?
The brothers Elefante penned “Heaven Or Nothing”, a commercial hard rock ballad I have never been able to warm up to. While there is nothing really wrong with it musically, “Heaven Or Nothing” comes across watered down as a result of the rhythm guitar being placed a bit low in the mix. The exact opposite can be said about the keyboards. In the hands of a powerful metal band like Barren Cross “Heaven Or Nothing” ends up sounding like a forced attempt at commercial success. In other words, it is a good song just NOT a good Barren Cross song. Perhaps a band along the lines of Petra, White Heart or even Stryper would have done things better justice.
“King Of Kings” starts to several seconds of open air rhythm guitar before settling down to a steadfast mid-tempo pace for its first verse. The chorus that ensues is of the strong melodic flavored variety. Subsequent to slowing to an acoustic guitar, the song transitions to a flashy solo from Parris. “King Of Kings” can best be described as a metal-worship anthem:
He's the Rock, the great I Am
The reason why we sing
He's the King Of Kings
The Master of all things
The Power and the Source
The Everlasting Source
The progressive influenced metal of the seven minute “Living Dead” ranks with the heaviest of the heavies. The song jumps out of the gate to a muscular combination of rhythm guitar and bass, the two pushing it ahead with a plethora of overriding momentum. “Living Dead” does not slow, however, until it reaches a chorus in which a heavy handed but commanding setting is put into place. Following the songs second chorus, the pace decelerates to a near standstill as Lee details the state of spiritual death:
Look in the sky, and tell me what comes to your mind
Look in my eye, are these the eyes of disguise
The feet, they can walk, but the eyes cannot see
Their hearts made of lead, it's the living dead
In the end, “Living Dead” invites its listeners to break out of the state of spiritual death:
Make the kill between the eyes, the old man say goodbye
Shoot the arrow, kill the sin, give birth to life get born again
Take the road of destiny that leads you past evil's tree
Drop the blade, no suicide can help you seek a place to hide
Give the mighty Barren Cross a great deal of credit for delivering a ton of professionalism on its Enigma debut Atomic Arena. The bands musicianship is top notch. The production values solid. And when taking into account the strength of its songwriting, the albums features some of the finest moments of the bands four album career. Highly recommended.
Finally, it is worth noting that Atomic Arena, which went on to sell a respectable 100, 000 copies, was re-issued in 2004 by Restless Records.
Track Listing: “Imaginary Music” (4:26), “Killers Of The Unborn” (3:28), “In The Eye Of The Fire” (4:27), “Terrorist Child” (3:30), “Close To The Edge” (4:55), “Dead Lock” (4:18), “Cultic Regimes” (2:48), “Heaven Or Nothing” (4:10), “King Of Kings” (3:30), “Living Dead” (6:50)
Mike Lee – Lead Vocals & Acoustic Guitar
Ray Parris – Guitars
Jim LaVerde – Bass & Synthesizers
Steve Whitaker – Drums
Also Reviewed: Barren Cross – Rock For The King
Johnson, Dave. "Progressive Metal Masters." White Throne 5 (1989): 20-22.