|Musical Style: Heavy Metal||Produced By: Michael Sweet|
|Record Label: Big3||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2011||Artist Website: Stryper|
|Tracks: 13||Rating: No Quote|
|Running Time: 53:28|
Christian bands covering songs of their mainstream counterparts is an ongoing trend dating to the late seventies. Servant was one of the first to get in on the act, with its debut Shallow Water (1979) featuring “Rich Man” (Sammy Hagar) and the follow up effort Rockin’ Revival (1981) “Jealousies” (Eddie Money). Resurrection Band was next in line, recording “Presence Of The Lord” (Eric Clapton) for Silence Screams (1988) and “Bargain” (The Who) and “Somebody To Love” (Jefferson Airplane) for Innocent Blood (1989) and Civil Rites (1991) respectively. Deliverance placed its rendering of “After Forever” (Black Sabbath) on What A Joke (1991) and Holy Soldier “Gimme Shelter” (Rolling Stones) onto Last Train (1992).
The trend has continued into recent years. Rob Rock is the first to come to mind, having covered a couple of ABBA songs, including “Eagle” on his first solo release Rage Of Creation (2000) and “Move On” for Holy Hell (2005). Vocalist Christian Liljegren must also be mentioned for the covers from his bands Audiovision, “Love Is Like Oxygen” (Sweet) from The Calling (2005) and Divinefire, “The Show Must Go On” (Queen) off Hero (2005). And what else would you expect from a former Megadeth tribute band than a Megadeth cover, as Boarders did with “In My Darkest Hour” from The World Hates Me (2007). Main Line Riders made “Shot In The Dark” (Junkyard) the title track to its 2007 debut while Saint redid “Invaders” (Judas Priest) for Crime Scene Earth (2008).
Stryper, of course, are no strangers to covers, with “Shining Star” (Earth, Wind & Fire) recorded for Against The Law (1990) and “Peace Of Mind” (Boston) appearing on Murder By Pride (2009). What most people do not know, however, is that Stryper got its start as a cover band in its “pre-Stryper” days and later incorporated both originals and covers into its set list during the years it performed at Gazzarri’s on the Strip. In the words of vocalist Michael Sweet: “We always did Priest covers and Maiden covers, all those bands that we grew up on and influenced us.”
Over the years when Stryper would sound check, it would do a cover or two, eventually adding “On Fire” (Van Halan) to the set in 1991 while recently incorporating “Breaking The Law” (Judas Priest). Hence, the next obvious step for the band was to record a covers album, and such is what it did in early 2011 with the Big3 Records release The Covering. Again, in the words of Michael Sweet: “We agreed that now would be the perfect time to (record a covers album) because the four of us (including Tim, Robert & Oz) would be able to go in and have some fun, loosen up and show people where our roots lie.”
What we have in The Covering is a thirteen song effort featuring 12 covers and one new Stryper song. Now, whenever a band records a cover, it is important that it walk a fine line between being respectful to the original while putting its own spin on the song. I cannot help but think Stryper proved successful in this regard. It all starts with the bands performance, particularly of vocalist Michael Sweet, who, for a lack of better words, has not lost anything over the years. Just check out the high end falsettos he cuts loose with on “On Fire” (Van Halan) and “God”, the new song that has classic eighties Stryper written all over it. He even brings some grit and edge to his delivery on a weightier piece such as “Breaking The Law” (Judas Priest) while lending a fitting lower register to the technical sounds of “The Trooper” (Iron Maiden).
Guitarist Oz Fox, of course, has his moments as well. As a matter of fact, I bet he was “licking his chops” the moment he found out Stryper was going to be doing a covers album. His work on rhythm guitar, when combined with that of Michael’s, helps make The Covering the heaviest Stryper release in, well, a very long time- dating back to the mid-eighties. The overall feel here is Soldiers Under Command but with beefed up production. His expert soloing proves why he is one of eighties metals most underrated musicians. Still in doubt? Then give “Heaven And Hell” (Black Sabbath) and “Highway Star” (Deep Purple), with their extended instrumental excursions in which he really cuts loose, several spins. Michael joins Oz for some trademark duel Stryper lead guitar work on “Blackout” (Scorpions).
It is good to see drummer Robert Sweet and bassist Tim Gaines making strong contributions. I enjoy how Robert is allowed to free lance and bring his own signature creativity to the material here, in the same manner that he did on the Titanic re-issues (Maiden Voyage and Screaming In Silence) from last year and the 2008 Menchen “all star” solo release. Check out “Over The Mountain” (Ozzy Osbourne) for a prime example of his timekeeping skills.
Am I out of line to suggest this is the only Stryper album to do Gaines’ abilities justice? It is certainly one of the few in which his bass receives a proper mix. The quieter moments to “Carry On Wayward Son” (Kansas) find his bass literally breathing with life while “Shout It Out Loud” (Kiss) brings an equal pronounced low end emphasis.
My overall feeling is that from a musical standpoint this is the first true Stryper album since the groups eighties heyday. Yes, Murder By Pride (2009) had its good moments but features only two of the four original members while Reborn (2005) was, well, modern to a fault. The Covering, however, finds Stryper firing on all cylinders - the groups trademark energy shines through in the music (you can tell they had a great deal of fun in the studio) - and proves there are few better from their era in the process. At this point the following question begs to be asked: How many melodic/glam/hair metal bands from the time could reunite their original line up and record a covers album as impressive as The Covering. Can’t think of any? Me neither.
Many of you might be concerned about lyrics, but Stryper obviously selected the albums material with lyrical content in mind. Once more, in the words of Michael: “We tried our best to be appropriate with the lyrical choices.” Stryper also wanted to solidify its serious about its faith; hence, the bold message to the new song “God”.
Packaging also must be noted, with the front cover a character representing the bad or evil side in us and back cover showing him transformed. The overall meaning is the transforming power of God and how God’s “covering” is transforming and life changing.
Track By Track
“Set Me Free” (Sweet) has not received as much “frequent flyer miles” on classic rock FM radio in comparison to many of the songs here- at least that has been my experience (yours might be different). I did not immediately recognize it on first listen and thought it actually might be a new Stryper song. The reasons are obvious: “Set Me Free” has a very deceptive Stryper-like feel to it, reflected in the commercial leanings to its chorus and use of polished vocal melodies. Interestingly, the guitar work during the instrumental moments heads in a bluesy direction.
In God We Trust is my least favorite Stryper album. Perhaps it is the slick feel to the production or overt trending towards the commercial, but the album potentially held the group back from achieving the full success it could at the times. Yes, it was a given that Stryper was going to sell a LOT of records following the platinum success of To Hell With The Devil. But how many? 3-5 million? 10 million? As it turned out, IGWT could not even move a million, with the main reasons being, in my opinion, already noted.
So what does this have to do with the next song, “Blackout” (Scorpions). Everything. I am sure most of you reading this agree early Stryper was it its best when heaviest. With this in mind, many melodic metal groups of the era proved you could achieve an element of commercial success – do I dare say accessibility? - while flexing their muscles at the same time (think Dokken, Def Leppard and Scorpions). Enter “Blackout”. This one fits the Stryper sound to a T: metallic edges to the guitars, big hook chorus and infectious upbeat momentum. Who knows what might have happened if Stryper headed in such a direction in the wake of THWTD- they might not have ever gone away (certainly would have sold more records).
“Heaven And Hell” (Black Sabbath) captures much of the previously referenced Stryper heaviness. The song actually finds the group exploring musical territory we have not always seen from them, with some darker and ominous flavorings mixed with choir-like backing vocals. Coming in at six minutes, “Heaven And Hell” also features an extended jam session mixing ethereal elements with razor edged lead guitar work.
Now, I am sure many of you are wondering how Michael Sweet does filling the shoes of the late Ronnie James Dio? I do not think it is a fair question. It reminds me of the first time Michael Jordan retired (in 1994) and the Chicago Bulls brought in someone named Pete Myers as his “replacement”. But when pressed about the matter, Myers - based upon my recollection from and ESPN interview back in the day - stated to the effect it was not his intention to “replace” Michael Jordan but rather he was the guy who happed to be now playing shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls. The same analogy applies here in that Michael (Sweet and not Jordan!) does not seem intent on “replacing” Dio but rather add his own unique persona to the song- and he does it quite well. I feel it is best to leave it at that…
“Lights Out” (UFO) introduces some keyboards in the backdrop and creates an appealing seventies effect in the process. I enjoy the emotional - almost dramatic - milieu to the song while some of the heavier guitar riffs hint at “More Than A Man”. Stryper sounds in fine form here in that they really lock into a complementary flow and groove.
Stryper pulls off “Carry On Wayward Son” (Kansas) without a hitch, including the periodic tempo changes to a slower direction upheld by a piano and others with the guitar in full force- the best way to describe things might be a “metalized” version of the song. Does that make sense? Michael proves more than a match for Steve Walsh vocally while Oz Fox does his best Kerry Livgren impersonation during the instrumental moments here. The song maintains its signature catchiness in the process.
My thought is that Bride would be the better band to cover “Highway Star” (Deep Purple) due to the songs bluesy proclivity. But Stryper’s versatility reins supreme in delivering quite the driving and frenetic performance. My favorite aspects to the song are its instrumental moments, which feature some accenting keyboard work and very intense (and skillful) soloing from Oz. If concerned about Stryper’s musicianship this one cannot help but leave you impressed.
Stryper brings a “formula” rendition of “Shout It Out Loud” (Kiss). Not that formula is bad, in that it is really not that difficult to get this one wrong. The band, in other words, adds to the songs trademark spirit and verve with a fitting high octane performance. All time great metal anthem chorus along with some double kick drum at the end that was not part of the original.
“Over The Mountain” (Ozzy Osbourne) is HEAVY – as in power metal heavy. Think in terms of something Rob Rock might do, particularly from his Holy Hell (2005) solo release. I love the guitar riffs here: powerful, galloping and in your face. It also must be pointed out that Robert Sweet puts in quite the creative performance timekeeping wise (he is literally all over the place behind the drum kit).
“The Trooper” (Iron Maiden) stands out with its technical mindset and forceful momentum. There is so much going on here in terms of musicianship - this one sounds as if it must have been incredibly challenging to pull off in the studio - yet Stryper delivers the same high level of execution. It also must be noted the tight feel to the guitar harmonies while Michael matches the mood and feel to the music by singing in a lower register.
Am I out of line to suggest “Breaking The Law” (Judas Priest) brings a darker and weightier feel in comparison to the original? While an observation and not critique, the song moves at the slower tempo overall (again, my observation) but still retains its gripping energy and hook focused chorus. I bet this one make a great transition in a live setting.
Stryper sounds as if it had a great deal of fun with “On Fire” (Van Halan), especially Oz who shines in duplicating those Van Halan style riffs and chops. Similar to “The Trooper”, this one also comes across as if it had been difficult to perform form a musicianship standpoint. And while we are at it, Michael easily outranges David Lee Roth in the falsetto department during the songs full on chorus.
“Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin) is a concise but over the top two minutes. Up-tempo all the way, the song brings a frenetic restlessness that lends itself to metal and hard rock done Stryper style. I guess you might call it an all around natural “fit and feel”. The only complaint is that the song is on the short side of things. Then again, perhaps I should be directing my complaint to Led Zeppelin and not Stryper!
“God” brings everything you would wish for in a Stryper song: heavy but melodic, immaculately done chorus, abundant big backing vocals, and falsettos to your hearts content. The guitar harmonies just before the instrumental section sound as if taken straight off “To Hell With The Devil”. It’s almost as if the guys stepped from a mid-eighties time warp and hit the ground running- they sound that inspired and refreshed. Lyric snippet:
Hearts are weeping, souls are keeping on ice
Spirits dying, wickedness won’t suffice
Those who cared, they stop and stare at the wall
Doing nothing, watching prisoners fall
The sun is falling from the sky, the earth is cold and still
God – have mercy on us
For we know not what we do
God – dark and blinded we are burning without You
Stryper, not unlike fine wine, keeps getting better with age. All platitudes aside, The Covering shines as a result of the bands high energy performance and quality of musicianship. The choice of material is spot on while the new track, “God”, is classic Stryper all the way. I cannot help but think the future looks very bright for the group. Let’s hope they maintain the momentum here.
Review by Andrew Rockwell.
Track Listing: “Set Me Free” (Sweet) (3:44), “Blackout” (Scorpions) (3:58), “Heaven And Hell” (Black Sabbath) (6:11), “Lights Out” (UFO) (3:45), “Carry On Wayward Son” (Kansas) (5:16), “Highway Star” (Deep Purple) (5:45), “Shout It Out Loud” (Kiss) (3:15), “Over The Mountain” (Ozzy Osbourne) (4:21), “The Trooper” (Iron Maiden) (3:53), “Breaking The Law” (Judas Priest) (3:02), “On Fire” (Van Halen) (3:08), “Immigrant Song” (Led Zeppelin) (2:16), “God” (4:55)
Michael Sweet – Lead Vocals & Guitars
Oz Fox – Guitars
Tim Gaines – Bass
Robert Sweet – Drums
Charles Foley – Keyboards, Organ & Piano