|Musical Style: Heavy Metal||Produced By:|
|Record Label: Talking Music||Country Of Origin: Sweden|
|Year Released: 2016||Artist Website: Leviticus|
|Tracks: 57||Rating: No Quote|
The Christian band that plays metal and hard rock. Who knew it would become such a thing? That is the question often asked when the Christian hard music scene started to emerge in the late seventies, a period in which Resurrection Band, Awaiting Your Reply (1978) and Rainbows End (1979), and Jerusalem, Volume 1 (1978), released their initial full length offerings. Purists that insist on categorizing Resurrection Band and Jerusalem as straightforward hard rock as opposed to metal have the right idea, particularly in light of today’s classification standards. Those interested in Christian bands with more of a metal based sound, however, would have to wait until the early to mid-eighties when the scene began to expand exponentially.
Stryper commonly receives consideration during any discussion involving the first Christian metal band, but that might not be entirely accurate when factoring those that came before. First that comes to mind is Stronghold, an Upstate New York based group that released the traditional metal rooted in the doom metal aesthetic of its first and only 1982 album Fortress Rock. Other strong contenders include Canada’s Daniel Band, with a productive run that yielded five metal to hard rock albums released between 1982 and 1988, and Barnabas, initially playing hard rock mixed with punk and new wave before transitioning to the all out metal of Approaching Light Speed and Feel The Fire from 1983 and 1984, respectively. Also notable is 100% Proof with a bluesy metal and hard rock slant on its 1981 debut 100% Proof and 1983 follow up effort Power And The Glory.
Of those that arose out of the Sunset Strip, Stryper represents the first Christian metal band to gain mainstream acceptance but did not put out its groundbreaking debut EP The Yellow And Black Attack until 1984, while Barren Cross formed in 1983 prior to also debuting with an EP, Believe from 1985. Contemporaries Saint and Bride have demos that predate Stryper, with former starting under The Gentiles moniker and recording a four song demo in 1981 and latter initially known as Matrix and with its first custom cassette PG-13 attributed to 1983. For those wondering, Bloodgood released its popular Metal Missionaries demo in 1985. I do not feel I am out of line to suggest that the bands referenced in the first two paragraphs helped paved the way for those that followed in the third.
Which leaves us with only one card remaining to play: Leviticus. Also ranking among said precursors to Stryper, the Skövde, Sweden based group traces its origin to the early eighties when founded by guitarist Björn Stigsson and cousin’s vocalist/bassist Håkan Andersson and drummer Kjell Andersson. Leviticus got its start in 1982 with the four-song EP Sta Och Titta Pa followed by the Swedish version to its full-length debut I Shall Conquer (Jag Skall Segra) from 1983. Talking Music released the English equivalent to I Shall Conquer in 1984, while the US release came out the following year on Shadow Records but with different cover art. Leviticus returned with the same line up in 1985 with Twilight Records sophomore outing The Strongest Power, which saw re-release a year later on Pure Metal Records also with revised cover art.
Leviticus overhauled its roster for 1987 Royal Music and Pure Metal third album Setting Fire To The Earth, with Terry H. taking on lead vocal duties and Ez Gomer bass for the departed Hakan Andersson. The group continued to revise its line up for its fourth studio release from 1989, the John and Dino Elefante produced Knights Of Heaven (also Royal Music and Pure Metal) in which Peo Pettersson handled vocals and Niklas Franklin bass. Leviticus might have disbanded in 1990 but reformed the Knights Of Heaven line up for a performance at Bobfest 2003 that later saw release as the appropriately entitled live album Live At Bobfest 2003.
Finally, in the spring of 2016 Leviticus put out a much anticipated and long awaited box set entitled 35 Years Anniversary: In His Service featuring re-mastered versions to the four studio albums and DVD of the groups Bobfest 2003 performance. Bonus material comes in the form of several studio album live version equivalents from the original Live At Bobfest 2003 recording.
As is often the case with box sets, packaging receives a lot of time and attention, which on In His Services includes a fantastic 24-page booklet with a detailed band biography, high volume of vintage photos and discography featuring artwork to each version of the first two albums along with in depth liner notes. Each CD comes packaged in a ‘slipcase’. While I have nothing against slipcases (they work fine within context of a box setting), it deserves note that the cover art scans are a bit faded and washed out in comparison to the originals. Outside of a few typo errors, this is my only complaint regarding what amounts a very solid package that is In His Service.
I Shall Conquer
I Shall Conquer introduced me to Leviticus, having purchased (from Kosher Records) an import version of the Talking Music vinyl release with the original ‘knight with bloody sword stepping over the slain dragon’ cover art. Immediate impression is that I Shall Conquer falls within straightforward metal territory, which attributes to how Stigsson’s upfront guitars allows it to rate with the heavier releases in Christian circles of the time. Yes, production is a bit thin, but re-mastering improves upon this in further playing up said guitars and emphasizing the more pronounced low end.
Album jumps out of the gate to the driving metal of its title track with power chords in abundance and extended run of Stigsson’s stylish (and very underrated) lead guitar work. “I Shall Conquer” also introduces the listener to Håkan Andersson’s vocal abilities, whose gravelly and mid-paced flavorings I have grown to appreciate over the years, although it would be fair to suggest his style is somewhat of an acquired taste.
“Let Me Fight” maintains the boisterous leanings with its animated bass focus and keyed up “Oh Lord, let me fight- win the battle in Your name!” chorus, while “He’s My Life” touches upon power metal in terms of its slashing guitar riffs and Kjell Andersson’s technical double bass performance. Other showstoppers include “Doubt”, a laid back and bluesy swing and pull acoustic laced number, and “All Is Calm”, perhaps the finest example of an emotional hard rock power ballad this reviewer has heard (I would love to hear it re-done by Stryper or Rob Rock).
Rounding out the consistent work that is I Shall Conquer is classy melodic hard rocker “Action More Than Words” and a pair of no frills but good metal cuts in “Day By Day” and “Strive Forwards”. Album ends to the Leviticus rendering of “Psalm 23” with its plodding tempo and closing run of extended lead guitar.
Track Listing: "I Shall Conquer" (4:16), "Let Me Fight" (3:2), "He’s My Life" (4:12), "Doubt" (4:20), "Action More Than Words" (4:09), "All Is Calm" (5:23), "Day By Day" (6:00), "Strive Forwards" (3:40), "Psalm 23" (4:19), “All Is Calm” (Live) (5:53)
The Strongest Power
When The Strongest Power was re-issued in 2013 on Ektro Records I could not help but ask: Why The Strongest Power? Or more specifically, why JUST The Strongest Power in that Ektro put out such a high quality product that I wanted the entire Leviticus back catalog re-released. Stigsson, obviously, had other ideas as found in how In His Service saw release several years later.
Similar to I Shall Conquer, I purchased a vinyl import copy of The Strongest Power (again from Kosher) with the original ‘Deborah and Barak’ cover art. I always felt that The Strongest Power presented with stronger production in comparison to I Shall Conquer (which re-mastering further magnifies) while in my opinion standing out as the heaviest and most musically consistent of the four Leviticus studio releases.
Album starts to a bang with the driving but melodic signatures to “The Winner” before moving on to perhaps Leviticus’ heaviest ever cut in the near doom-ish sounds of the bone crushing “Deborah and Barak”. Other notable songs include the impassioned power metal of “I Got Power” (with its technical to near progressive intricacies) and awesome worship metal anthem “King Of Kings” (giving rise to a stately demeanor). “Light For The World” proves that when Leviticus is at the top of its melodic metal game there are few better.
Also solid is the melodic hard rock of “On The Rock” and non-stop energy inherit to the speed metal laced “Stay With Us” and boogie flavored “I Love You”. Taking a more mid-paced heading are the at times dark and moody and others hard hitting “Look Around” and smooth semi-ballad essence of “A New Day”.
Track Listing: "The Winner" (4:03), "Deborah And Barak" (3:27), "On The Rock" (2:58), "King Of Kings" (5:18), "Stay With Us" (3:54), "I Got Power" (4:00), "Look Around" (4:26), "I Love You" (3:17), "A New Day" (4:13), "Light For The World" (5:09), “Deborah And Barak” (Live) (4:16)
Setting Fire To The Earth
Setting Fire To The Earth represents a new and improved Leviticus. New in terms of taking a more commercial musical direction and recent additions in Terry H. and bassist Ez Gomer, but also improved in terms of featuring some of the groups finest material ever.
It starts with Terry H., who puts in the type of professional performance that cannot help but offer comparison to iconic names such as Geoff Tate and Rob Rock. Yes, he is that good. Consider how his falsettos mimic the guitar feedback at the start of “Flames Of Fire”, a jaw dropping eighties melodic metal example with soaring hooks galore and stylish grace to match. “Saved” matches the intensity with its “praise-the-Lord-I’m-saved!” vocal intro before moving on to the sweeping bass of its compact verses and more over the top falsettos that define quite the heightened chorus.
Notable to the two is how re-mastering makes an already very good production even better with a sturdier low end and increased loudness levels that enhance clarity overall.
Matching the brilliance is “The Suffering Servant”, an all time classic hard rock semi-ballad that transitions between moving classical guitars and melodic rhythm guitars, and “Elijah On Carmel”, albums heaviest in which bulldozing riffs and frenetic double bass set a near speed metal tone. Ez Gomer shows off his technical bass licks and chops on the scintillating low-end groove to “Get Up”.
Also good is “The First And The Last”, a straight on hard rocker highlighted by its forthright mid paced demeanor, and “I’m A Believer”, even slower with a relaxed disposition and cool ‘glory, glory hallelujah’ acapella vocals subsequent to the shred guitar solo.
Lone complaint is that Setting Fire To The Earth is a bit uneven in including (in my opinion) a couple filler tracks in “Don’t Go Out” and “Love Is Love”. Replace both with two to three others of similar quality as the rest of the albums material and end-result would be a classic ranking with the genres best.
Track Listing: “Flames Of Fire” (3:23), “Saved” (4:11), “The First And The Last” (3:43), “I’m A Believer” (3:59), “Don’t Go Out” (3:39), “Elijah On Carmel” (4:53), “The Suffering Servant” (4:53), “Get Up” (3:41), “Love Is Love” (4:04), “Flames Of Fire” (Live) (3:22), “Saved” (4:09)
Knights Of Heaven
Knights Of Heaven has always left the impression as suffering from an overly polished production (courtesy of John & Dino Elefante) that placed too much emphasis on keyboards and backing vocals. Good news is that re-mastering rectifies this in providing for a rawer and earthier sound in which guitars stand out that much further.
Fact is, venture beneath the surface and you will find Knights Of Heaven showcasing some very solid melodic hard rock material. “Born Again” and “Strong Love’, revel in up-tempo and catchy radio friendly hooks, while “Over The Hills” plays up a similar level of accessibility but in the heavier package. All the while Peo Pettersson sings his heart out with his distinct gritty middle register style perfectly in step with the nature of the music at hand.
Slowing the tempo but not the quality are the smooth AOR flavorings to “Isn’t It Love” and catchy melody characteristic to the bluesy “Messiah”. “Oh, Lord” shines as a Gospel based ballad with fitting doses of piano and Hammond B3.
Also good is “For Once In My Life”, upholding the ballad basis in an acoustic package but also with some polish that borders on too thick for my taste, and “Love On Fire”, an upbeat hard rocker featuring a decent hook but with the signature Elefante backing vocals almost playing too much of a prevailing role.
You will only find a couple clunkers here which re-mastering cannot save in the glitzy pop flavorings of “The World Goes Round” and “Feel So Good” with its annoying ‘Ooh-wee-I-am-so-excited-ooh-wee-I-feel-so-good’ chorus.
Of the bonus material, a live version to “Feel So Good” is included that does no appear on either the CD or DVD versions to Live At BobFest 2003. This leads to the lone constructive comment I have in regards to In His Service: it’s lack of unique material. Perhaps Leviticus could have gone a bit deeper into the vault and also added some previously unreleased alternate and/or demo versions to songs or at the very least a re-mastered version to the Sta Och Titta Pa EP.
Track Listing: "Born Again" (3:40), "The World Goes Round" (4:21), "Isn't It Love" (4:34), "Oh, Lord" (4:53), "Feels So Good" (2:23), "Strong Love" (3:41), "Messiah" (3:57), "Over the Hills" (3:58), "For Once in My Life" (4:09), "Love On Fire" (3:42), “Born Again” (Live) (3:44), “Strong Love” (3:41), “Messiah” (4:08), “Feels So Good” (2:22)
Live At BobFest 2003
Leviticus showed up to Bobfest 2003 with a bluesy hard rock sound somewhat akin to Bjorn Stigsson’s excellent 1989 solo album Together With Friends, noting the ample use of Hammond B3 throughout. I cannot help but feel Leviticus is in its natural musical element in this regard- or at the very least, this is the way it intended the Knights Of Heaven material to sound, which really comes to life in a live setting!
In revisiting my 75% review of Live At BobFest 2003, I complained of the album not having enough of a ‘live’ feel due to the audience not being placed high enough in the mix, while also noting how keyboards at times override guitars. Re-mastering rectifies this either way in that the DVD presents with more than adequate audience presence (especially between songs) and better balance between guitars and keyboards.
The DVD was professionally produced with (if my guess is correct) three cameras to accurately capture the groups performance- a main camera in the back for a full stage view and pair of cameras to either side of the stage for close up shots. Editing, on the other hand, leaves somewhat desired in that there are so many fades and dissolves to multiple screens and spinning frames that turn upside down as to be distracting. Just keep it simple and let the band performance speak for itself.
One of the highlights to the DVD is Peo Pettersson’s gravelly interpretation of the Setting Fire To The Earth material, while it is equally good to hear Leviticus cover a couple cuts off the aforementioned Together With Friends, an album I rate as Stigsson’s finest work that deserves equally the re-mastering and re-release treatment.
Track listing is solid in that all the expected classics are present (“Saved”, “The Suffering Servant”, “Deborah & Barak”, etc), although I wish the band had included more than just one off I Shall Conquer. I also feel there are better songs off The Strongest Power to perform live than “On The Rock”, with “King Of Kings”, “I Got Power” and “Light For The World” coming to mind.
Track Listing: "Flames Of Fire" (3:55), "Saved" (4:41), "Messiah" (4:14), "Oh Lord" (5:12), "Majestic In Power" (5:24), "On The Rock" (3:24), "All Is Calm" (5:52), "Born Again" (4:36), "The Suffering Servant" (7:27), "Deborah And Barak" (4:21), "I’m Gonna Rock" (7:23)
It proves problematic naming the first Christian metal band, but Leviticus is a strong contender in terms of its early eighties inception and how I Shall Conquer preceded Stryper’s The Yellow And Black Attack by one year. Regardless, its four- album output during the eighties helps cement its place alongside Stronghold, Daniel Band, Barnabas and Jerusaelm as forerunners within the early Christian hard music scene.
35 Years Anniversary: In His Services proves a bargain at $39.99 when factoring the quality to the product at hand: improved re-mastered versions to the four Leviticus studio albums and professionally done packaging with a detailed mini booklet. My advice is to pick up a copy while still available before it goes out of print and turns into a hard to find and expensive collector’s item.
Review by Andrew Rockwell