Reviews: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Stronghold - Fortress Rock
   
Musical Style: Metal/Hard Rock Produced By: Dwight M. Glodell
Record Label: Born Twice Country Of Origin: USA
Year Released: 1982/2012 Artist Website:
Tracks: 8 Rating: 80%
Running Time: 41:08

Stronghold - Fortress Rock

Before Barnabas “approached light speed”; before Daniel Band “ran from the darkness”; and before Stryper “soldiered under command”, an obscure but talented group out of Upstate New York named Stronghold beat them all to the punch in terms of being the first within the Christian hard music scene to deliver a metal based sound.  Consider Stronghold’s 1982 full length Tunesmith debut Fortress Rock, which showcased a joining of 70’s classic hard rock, doom metal and traditional metal that was way ahead of its time- at least in comparison to what the group’s contemporaries were producing.  Top acts of the period such as Resurrection Band, Daniel Band, Jerusalem and Barnabas, for instance, were more hard rock as opposed to metal, while Stryper and many of the so called “white metal” bands that followed did not hit the scene until the mid-eighties.

What Stronghold specializes in is a dark, weighty and muscular brand of metal firmly rooted in the doom-metal aesthetic.  Slogging riffs and plodding bass lines emanate throughout Fortress Rock, particularly on slower pieces such as “Barabbas” (as a result of its a dramatic but dogged proclivity) and “No Superstars For Jesus” (heavy duty doom but not to the point of overbearing).  “Nobody Owes You Nothing” maintains the mid-paced penchant in bringing a driving and no-nonsense approach.

The album can take a traditional metal heading as well, as it does on the high energy leanings of “The Called” and “Desert Walker”, or even exude some commercial touches for melodic hard rocker “Dreams & Pretty Pictures” and ethereal “Daybreak’s Coming” (standout melody on this one) .  “Stronghold”, the bands signature track, is a catchy riff driven basing of a classic hymn around a metal based framework.

What most impresses about Stronghold is its musical maturity.  You would think that the initial endeavor from a young, independent group would be crude, roughly hewn and unpolished.  Such, however, is not the case in that Stronghold highlights a deft songwriting touch and musical maturity well beyond their years.  This is mirrored in how Fortress Rock plays up a front to back consistency in that while some songs are better than others there is nothing I skip over either.  It also makes purchasing the Born Twice re-issue - re-mastered and packaged in a 4 panel digi-pak - from the summer of 2012 a necessity.

Stronghold also presents with the total package from a musicianship standpoint.  The first to deserve mention is guitarist Pete Moore, who lends the metal aspect to the bands sound with riff action ranging from the trudging and doom-ish to faster metal edged distortion.  On lead guitar he proves a nasty and in your face player that brings to mind a more aggressive Oz Fox but with a touch of Steve Osbourne (Bride) thrown in (check out his soloing on “Barabbas” and “Desert Walker” to understand my point).  Equally adept is drummer Jay Molina (lending his technical timekeeping skills without overplaying) and bassist C.C. Cupp (his life-like bass line on “The Called” sets the standard).  Tying everything together are the gritty vocal abilities of Gary Smith.  Staying mostly in mid-ranged territory but smoothing things out on the albums more accessible material, he stays true to the music at hand either way.

Production is problematic.  Yes, you will encounter an element of thinness that would be expected from an early eighties independent release but not to the point of overriding or unlistenable.  The sound is actually pretty clean in that more than adequate room allows the bass and guitars leads to rise above the mix.  Vocals do not dominate either.  Re-mastering, courtesy of Steinhaus, helps out immensely- at least when placed alongside the vinyl copy I purchased back in the day.

The lone complaint revolves around packaging: The 4 panel digi-pak does not allow for lyrics.  Fortunately, a lyric sheet was included with the vinyl version, which I used when putting together the track by track.

Give Born Twice credit for again making Fortress Rock available.  The quality to the album being such I forgot how good its songs are after not listening to it the better part of two decades.  If Stronghold had remained around long enough to record a follow up or two they would be mentioned in the same sentence as many of its more prolific contemporaries.  Rumor has it that just after Stronghold broke up it was contacted by a well known Christian label of the time in regards to a deal (the groups new material was reported to be in a more progressive vein).

Track By Track

“Stronghold” represents one of the first attempts at combining metal with traditional classic hymn.  The song slowly fades in to the refrain of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” before powering into a full blown rocker with walloping guitars, dogged low end metal worship environs to match.  In between we are treated to some of the catchiest riff action you will hear along with a hook driven chorus that is engaging as it gets.  A classic example of early Christian hard rock.  Lyric snippet:

Now they are trapped by their walls of hate
Envious ways trace a path of scorn
They let greed and lust overdominate
But should they die now, who would mourn…

Stronghold, refuge
He is your salvation
Rock of Ages
Build on that foundation

Quite the contrast is plodder “Barabbas”.  A dramatic piece that portrays the insurrectionary Barabbas, the song walks a fine line between doom and traditional metal with its chugging mentality and rumbling bass guitar presence.  When impetus picks up, it is for a harsh and crushing guitar that adds to the climatic milieu.  Moore tops things off with some fitting caustic lead guitar.  Lyric snippet:

The soldiers come, my face goes white
I don’t know if its day or night
My feet are cold, my guts are tight
Releasing me?  That can’t be right!

The mob is shouting to indict
The “King of the Jews”- why won’t He fight?
Before them all He shows less fright
Than Pilate does for all his might

Barabbas – don’t need to fear the name
Someone died for me today
I’ll never be the same
Barabbas – someone took the blame
For all the wrongs I’ve ever done
Jesus is His name

“Dreams & Pretty Pictures” lightens things with its melodic hard rock approach.  The song flows its distance drifting between staunchly done verses upheld by a staunch rhythm guitar and a light and airy chorus that delivers the more even touch.  An extended instrumental section runs the gamut from ambient keyboards to some forthright riff action.  Lyric snippet:

There’s more to life than what you see
So face responsibility
God ain’t dead- He talks to me!
Wake up if you wanna be free

You got dreams… dreams and pretty pictures
Throw away all your toys and believe
Cuz the things that the Master has waiting
Are much more than your mind can conceive

“No Superstars For Jesus” presents with seven minutes of slogging doom metal.  With powerful but trudging riffs and slamming drums leading the way, the song borders on the heavy handed (in a positive sense in that doom metal is not always what you would call “radio friendly”) as a result of its swarthy and low-key approach.  A bit of time and patience is needed here but this one holds up all the same.  Sabbath fans rejoice!  Lyric snippet:

A richer life than you have dreamed is waiting just for you
He saved us when our hearts He cleansed; He died to save you, too
Jesus is the One we serve, we’ve found ourselves in Him
It doesn’t take a lot to ask Him to come in

No superstars for Jesus
We’re sinners just like you
Eternal life He gives us
And you can have it, too

“Daybreak’s Coming” stands out as the albums most melodic- and proves a nice change of pace when placed alongside “No Superstars For Jesus” in the process.  The song almost comes across ethereal with its use of airy keyboards and acoustic guitars, taking a more finesse based approach as Smith exhibits a smoother aspect to his delivery.  The softer nuances that come to the forefront lend themselves to radio play.  Lyric snippet:

It may seem that we are in the night that lasts forever
Nervous and uneasy, but laughing at the wise
Small and far off comes a cry wise men have been awaiting-
“The sky is getting lighter, and the Son is going to rise!”

Watch out!
Daybreak is coming!
The long night will be over
When the Son comes back again!

Back to hard rock with “Desert Walker”.  This one takes an upbeat heading, proving lively in capacity with its straightforward mentality upholding walls of Rez Band like guitars and occasional slower moments where things dip to a near crawl- and those doom-ish aspects come to the forefront again.  Keyboards return to add some airy moments to the back drop.  Moore rips away on lead guitar.  Lyric snippet:

She lifts his head up from the sand
And wipes the grains off with her hand
She puts some water to his lips
In desperation new he sips
She quenched his thirst in every way
And to this day, you’ll hear him say
“I thirst no more,
Living water’s changed my core.”

Weary traveler on the run
There is no shade to hide the sun
You thirst for life to no avail
You’re tired of the trail

“The Called” carries over the high energy from “Desert Walker”.  Starting to a drum solo, the song presents with a metal edged feel with its distorted rhythm guitar emphasis and fortified bass lines courtesy of Cupp.  Quite the wallop is delivered in the process, with a hybrid of Whitecross and Daniel Band coming to mind.  Lyric snippet: 

All things are working together
For the good, for everyone that loves
The Lord, the Father of every one
Of the Called according to His will
Not a single thing that happens to us
Is accidental or in vain
Cuz the Lord is going to work thru us
Because we are the children of His name

We are the Called
From before the world’s creation
Set apart
We’ll do the will of the Lord

Closer “Nobody Owes You Nothing” brings a rumbling mid-paced focus.  The song plays up a calmer and more relaxed feel in that the rhythm guitar is backed off just a touch- at least in comparison to much of the material here.  Interestingly, things descend into a doom-like room for the instrumental moments.  Either way, a decisive statement is made without coming across overtly commercial.  Lyric snippet:

It’s up to you what you make of yourself
No one controls it but you
Your life can turn into Heaven or Hell-
It just depends what you do
If you were brought up lousy or well
I really haven’t a clue
Whatever side of the story you tell
Depends on your point of view

Nobody owes you nothing!
Nobody’s riding for free!
No one can blame it on nobody else
For what they turn out to be

Review by Andrew Rockwell

Track Listing: “Stronghold” (4:45), “Barabbas” (5:33), “Dreams & Pretty Pictures” (4:29), “No Superstars For Jesus” (6:51), “Daybreak’s Coming” (6:18), “Desert Walker” (5:05), “The Called” (4:02), “Nobody Owes You Nothing” (4:01)

Musician
Gary Smith - Lead Vocals & Keyboards
Pete Moore - Guitars
C.C. Cupp - Bass
Jay Molina - Drums

 

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