|Musical Style: Heavy Metal||Produced By: Graeme Leslie & Stairway|
|Record Label: Independent||Country Of Origin: UK|
|Year Released: 2010||Artist Website: Stairway|
|Tracks: 11||Rating: 75%|
|Running Time: 47:15|
When someone speaks of an overlooked gem, they are often referring to an entity or persona possessing a great deal of skill and ability but, for reasons unknown, gets overlooked or lost in the shuffle. That would be the best way to describe UK based Stairway, a talented four piece unit that – despite releasing several high quality works over the years – has not always garnered the acclaim or notoriety it deserves in the Christian metal scene.
Stairway got its start in 1991 when it placed the tracks “Anybody There” and “Walk Away” on the White Metal Warriors compilation. Putting out its full length debut No Rest: No Mercy in 1993 and sophomore release Bleeding Heart six years later, Stairway did not hit its stride until following the turn of the century with On Hallowed Ground (2002) and The Other Side Of Midnight (2006).
On Hallowed Ground (85% Angelic Warlord review) had its masterful moments, including the mega-melodic “Stop The Pain”, Scorpions influenced ballad “Silent Dreams” and semi-progressiveness of the awesome “Deo Volente”. The Other Side Of Midnight (90% review), in addition to featuring one of the finest rhythm guitar productions this reviewer has heard, found Stairway in maturity mode by building upon the inspirational songwriting and top of the line performance characteristic to On Hallowed Ground.
It is on these two releases that Stairway – based upon my observation – acquired the “overlooked gem” label in that neither received the recognition given to albums recorded at the time by Theocracy, Rob Rock, Harmony and Narnia despite being of the same high quality.
With the start of a new decade, Stairway returns with a new album, its fifth overall in Interregnum. On Interregnum Stairway maintains its penchant for classic NWOBHM blended with elements of eighties influenced melodic metal. Direct mainstream comparisons include Saxon, Magnum, Rainbow and latter Black Sabbath. Some of the riffs here even bring to mind Iron Maiden. On the Christian side of the fence, if you like Whitecross, Saint, Barren Cross and Rivera Bomma then I can see you getting into Stairway as well.
Musically, Interregnum trends towards the mid-tempo in featuring solid melodies and chorus hooks, well placed backing vocals, shredding lead guitar work (courtesy of Pete Jennens, one of my all time favorite guitarists) and Graeme Leslie’s trademark smooth mid-ranged vocal presence.
Choice tracks include “Enter The Light” and “The Battle’s Over”, by far the albums two heaviest, and “Born To Die”, with its joining of the atmospheric (its first two minutes) and guitar driven (remaining distance). Mid-tempo pieces “The Suffering Servant”, “In The Shadow Of The Cross” and “I’m Calling” represent quintessential Stairway with their underlining catchiness while “What Lies Within” brings an element of the blues and “New Life” an up-tempo milieu.
Now, at this point I am sure you are wondering why Interregnum received a grade of just 75%, as opposed to the 10% to 15% higher grade given to its predecessors. Well, it all comes down to songwriting in that Interregnum does not present with the consistency of past Stairway releases. Specifically, I skip over two tracks: “Ride The Wind” (a rehashed version of an old Stairway song) and “Fear & Lies” (the hook that might pull me in with repeated listen is not there).
Another problem is production. Keeping in mind that Interregnum was recorded on an independent budget, I find the mix to be out of balance. Lead vocals end up placed way too forward. Drums, at the same time, lack presence while the guitar leads get lost admits the clutter. Rhythm guitar deserves to be beefed up as well.
Interregnum finds Stairway reuniting with artist Rodney Matthews, who did the artwork for No Rest: No Mercy. This time around Rodney offers an excellent portrayal of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
“The Suffering Servant” proves a solid album opener, mid-paced in capacity but quite catchy with its hook driven proclivity and momentum based riff. The end result is the emotional feel put forth by the song in terms of both its musical and lyrical direction:
He stood there motionless, the night before the day
With no expression on His face
Must this be done or is there yet another way
To put this final plan in place?
And in the shadow hides the final suffering
To put in place the final pain and sacrifice
He suffers – In silence
He suffers – A servant of God
He suffers – In silence
A suffering servant of God
The steady riff action continues on “In The Shadow Of The Cross”. Another mid-paced rocker, this one gives rise to the smoother aura with its lightly flowing pre-chorus and chorus heading in the heavier direction, which finds the rhythm guitar asserting itself fixed and firm. The forthright lyrical direction is maintained:
Memory fades and the blues sky will fly away
I find the Saviour of man
Seek thee the way of light to a brighter day
Stay in the arms of the cross
In the shadow of the Cross,
We will rise!
“I’m Calling” presents with some interesting contrasts. The song takes a more aggressive heading during its verses – with the guitar hammering in and out of the mix – only to taper for a luxurious chorus upheld by bountiful vocal melodies. Beautiful.
“Born To Die” begins its first two minutes calmly to a quietly played stretch of guitar. The song abruptly picks up in pace as the rhythm guitar slams in, taking the more focused approach its remaining distance as a forthright setting combines with more of the groups lush vocal harmonies. “Born To Die” proves aptly entitled:
Standing here, feeling total loss
Sunken face and broken will
Twisted hears is laid upon the Cross
Forgiveness seeks the final call
And bears the broken cross to Paradise
Born to die – yet saved to live
Do not cry – the Saviour gives
Hear Him calling – so surrender
No more lonely nights for evermore.
“Ride The Wind” is the first track here I struggle with. The main problem is that during its verses the song borrows the riff (verbatim) from “Under The Gun”, the opening track off On Hallowed Ground. Upon reaching its chorus, however, “Ride The Wind” takes on a character of its own in breaking out in melodic based fashion. Irregardless of the quality to the chorus, the trite feel to the verses proves too much to overcome. Overall, I am left with the feeling the band is trying to reinvent itself, which is never a good thing.
“New Life” starts to a flattering span of keyboards before picking up in pace to an all out hard rocker. Steadfast in aptitude and form, the song delivers another strong chorus – emotionally charged and too the point – while allowing for some cool bass guitar runs, such as the start of its instrumental interlude. “New Life” talks about the new life found in Christ:
We see the Truth revealed
The majesty as He defies the tomb
We see the Truth is sealed with new life
We taste love’s sweetest wine
Its righteousness is poured upon the earth
We live life’s true design, of new life, from dead life
Follow the Light of the Cross
We find new life – new life
Follow the Light of the Cross
New life, borne of the Cross
Ranking with the albums heaviest, “Enter The Light” combines some hard charging guitar riffs with a catchy but spitefully done chorus: I enjoy how the songs title ends up repeated eight times consecutively in heavy duty fashion. Again, the bass comes to the forefront of the mix at the start of the songs instrumental section in which some jazzy lead work holds sway.
“Fear & Lies” does not quite make the grade. The first problem is a low-key vocal performance that I find to come across on the flat side of things. Second, the chorus, to be blunt, fails to be memorable- at least not for me. Perhaps with better production this one might hold up but I end up hitting the skip button.
Things get back on track with “What Lies Within”. This one brings a bluesy slant, reflected in some of the guitar playing throughout, but otherwise picks up a head of stead in slowly maneuvering its verses before reaching a chorus that can best be described as brief and curt but hook driven. Jennens is spot on with his radiantly done soloing abilities. “What Lies Within” details the need for salvation:
And as I trace the story back to Adam’s “birth”
There’s still a change we need to find
There is no one to blame
For what we find we’re in
There is a choice for Adam’s kind
For I know what is in
The world’s inherit sin
I see where evil lies within
I see Life within
I see the Light
“The Battle’s Over” takes things in a heavier direction. The song really flexes its muscles during its verses – in which the tempo slows to a near crawl – only to kick up a tempestuous storm for stalwart chorus backed by a fixed rhythm guitar wall. What we wind up with is an atmosphere on the dramatic side of things. “The Battle’s Over” reinforces Christ’s victory on the cross:
The final war is won
He holds the keys of Heaven
Adorned, the wedding feast
Is clothed in Truth Eternal
I see the changing tide
I see new life emerging
I feel the breath of God
Is come with Life Eternal life
I now know what lies within
And the pain inside
The death of the Son of God
Is for all who seek the Truth
Death is life upon the mercy seat
Closing things out is an instrumental reprise of “Born To Die”.
Despite the fact Interregnum ranks a notch below On Hallowed Ground and The Other Side Of Midnight – at least in my opinion – Stairway remains an “overlooked gem” in the Christian metal scene. The fact is that the group’s talent is too prominent and its songwriting skills too polished, as reflected in the overall performance and more prominent material on Interregnum, for it to remain an unrecognized force for long. With time and perseverance I can see easily see Stairway receiving the credit it deserves- if it has not done so already.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “The Suffering Servant” (4:35), “In The Shadow Of The Cross” (4:34), “I’m Calling” (4:27), “Born To Die” (5:59), “Ride The Wind” (4:19), “New Life” (4:20), “Enter The Light” (5:10), “Fear & Lies” (4:10), “What Lies Within” (4:00), “The Battle’s Over” (3:51), “Born To Die – Epilogue” (2:25)
Graeme Leslie – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass & Keyboards
Pete Jennens – Guitars
Andy Edwards - Drums