|Musical Style: Melodic Metal||Produced By: Michael Sweet|
|Record Label: Frontiers||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2013||Artist Website: Stryper|
|Tracks: 16||Rating: No Quote|
I could not help but approach Second Coming, the spring of 2013 re-record album from Christian metal veterans Stryper, with a certain amount of skepticism. The group had already put out another re-record album a few short years ago, The Covering from 2011 was a collection of cover songs from mainstream bands which had helped shape Stryper’s sound, and, as a result, similar to much of the metal community I had my heart set on a project of original material instead. When further factoring the quality to the lone new track on The Covering, “God”, and that the last CD exclusive to new songs from the group, Murder By Pride, came out in 2009, a second re-record album in a row hardly seemed an ideal scenario. Boy was I mistaken.
Second Coming picks up where The Covering leaves off but this time features re-recorded versions of the bands classic songs, with two taken from The Yellow And Black Attack and six each from Soldiers Under Command and To Hell With The Devil. Two new tracks are included as well, “Bleeding From Inside Out” and “Blackened”.
Stryper accomplished two goals from re-recording its older material. First, it gives the band more control over the songs in question- and the legal rights that go along with it. Second, Stryper also has the opportunity to make things right from both a production and performance standpoint.
The Yellow And Black Attack stood to benefit the most from a re-record project. The album might have debuted Stryper’s high energy brand of melodic metal, heavier than some but also resting on an accessible foundation in which polished vocal melodies, high-octane vocals and a twin guitar attack prevail, but also suffered some low budget production misgivings.
This has been rectified on the two TYABA covers, “Loud N’ Clear” and “Loving You”. The all out metal of the former moves at a slower tempo in comparison to the original (by no means a fault) while still emphasizing the groups polished vocal melodies for its catchy chorus. Latter maintains a melodic hard rock demeanor in staying true to its trademark commercial sensibilities. What the two have in common are the edgier guitars and more powerful drums that come with stronger production, giving rise to extra doses of refinement but without robbing Stryper of its youthful energy in the process.
The lone point of contention is that only two songs from TYABA were chosen. My guess being that since TYABA is an EP it was decided to re-record just two songs as a result. I fail to agree with this logic, particularly in light of the fact TYABA features several of Stryper’s best ever songs which ended upon the cutting room floor: “From Wrong To Right”, “You Know What To Do” and “CoMon Rock”. Further muddying the pictures is that Second Coming includes later in its track listing two songs inferior to the aforementioned three (my opinion only): “Makes Me Wanna Sing” and “Calling On You”.
In a perfect world Stryper would have chosen to re-record TYABA in its entirety, something which is long overdue when factoring the watered down (and far inferior) remix of the album which came out in 1986. This has been a sore spot with Stryper fans for decades in that the original mix of TYABA, based upon this reviewers knowledge, was never released on CD (rumors abound that it came out in Japan, but until a copy is in my hands I remain skeptical). So Stryper could have made amends for the situation by covering all six from TYABA in addition to five each from SUC and THWTD, which would have resulted in the perfect track listing.
One of the calling cards to Second Coming is how its versions are “heaver” in comparison to the originals. Really? I always felt that prime Stryper was already quite heavy for its time- so not much upwardly revised moments is available in this area to begin with. The main difference I actually hear between the two is the manner in which bass (and ultimately the low-end in that Robert Sweet’s drums deliver a wallop) plays the more pronounced role. So rather than say Second Coming is “heavier” it would be more accurate to describe it as sounding “fuller” or “weightier” instead.
Nowhere does this better play out than on “Makes Me Wanna Sing”, a decent SUC cut that suffered from a lack of low-end presence (it is a well known fact that SUC featured no bass in the mix). This, however, has been amended in that with Tim Gaines’ bass leading the way, the song now comes across that much more arresting while still maintaining its high energy mindset.
Regardless of how you depict Second Coming, one cannot say that “Soldiers Under Command”, “Surrender” and “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” are not heavy. The three find Michael Sweet and Oz Fox showcasing their bristling lead guitar work, with Oz still lending his distorted soloing to “Surrender” and the two trading off on the albums title track and “The Rock That Makes Me Roll”. The upshot is what amounts three great metal anthems that still hit like a ton of bricks in the process.
Which leads to what I most appreciate about Second Coming: How Stryper chose to stay true to the spirit of the original recordings. The group, for instance, could have lent an overtly commercial In God We Trust style aspect to the project or even worse done “modern” renderings with the goal of lending to a more “current” sound. Instead the heavier material still plays up the same dosage of muscle, while that taking a commercial heading does not do so to a fault- in a similar vein as the originals.
Hence, the smart execution to the new versions of “Reach Out” and “First Love”, two of the more tempered SUC tracks. “Reach Out ” maintains its uplifting melodic hard rock vibe with the same spirited chorus backed by polished vocal melodies, which place a bit more emphasis on the lower register this time around. Yes, it took a couple extra listens to get used to the change but came to embrace it all the same.
Initially I found it suspicious the group chose “First Love” as a ballad over “Honestly”. The fact is that “Honestly”, the groups biggest hit, has been played so much almost to the point of oversaturation- so skipping it might have been the right idea. And besides, “First Love” is the better song. Give the group credit for allowing guitars to play the same notable role, still kicking in after three and a half minutes and making an emotional statement in the process. I also like how Stryper still extends it past five minutes (same with “Reach Out”).
My impression is that TYABA and SUC tracks improve the most from the re-record due to greater production values. Again, credit the group for maintaining its fundamental heaviness and youthful energy, two particulars which could have been neutered by adding too much polish.
Second Coming offers the first opportunity for Stryper fans to hear the THWTD tracks with Tim Gaines on bass, which is to the benefit of us all. Hence, another reason to appreciate Second Coming in that it is a true Stryper projects as a result of all four of its members contributing. And for those that might be wondering, someone named Brad Cobb contributed “additional bass guitar” (as taken from the albums liner notes) to the originals. The guy who replaces a bands full time bassist in the studio tends to get overlooked (sort of like your favorite NFL teams third string quarterback).
“Free” and “Sing-Along Song” translate best. In their initial form the two took a melodic hard rock heading with some commercial leanings. Both were very good in this capacity and I always considered them essential cuts as a result. On Second Coming, however, the two are removed of their polish in taking a rawer, more stripped down and metal based approach. Guitars now play the more distinct role on “Free” (although still maintaining the big, choir backing vocals), while “Sing-Along Song” loses its keyboards (by no means a bad things in that it now hits harder but with the same melodic proclivity).
Heavier tracks “To Hell With The Devil”, “The Way” and “More Than A Man” also shine. The three stay true to the first versions with the albums catchy title track maintaining its classic metal bearing and Oz Fox penned “The Way” a faster but darker vibe. The superlative “More Than A Man” continues to inspire with its faith based lyrics: “God, I will follow You because You died for me. Gave to me Your life to set me free. Anyone who asks shall receive. Jesus in your heart. It’s time to start giving God all the glory”.
I find it intriguing that “The Way” is the only Oz Fox contribution to the Stryper back catalog. If this is what he is capable of from a songwriting standpoint then why has he not been submitting more material? Or perhaps he has, but his song selections are getting shot down during pre-production. If such is the case - and Oz is walking around with a briefcase full of Stryper quality material - then he should record a solo album, preferably with someone like Rob Rock on vocals and Roy Z producing.
“Calling On You” is the last of the THWTD tracks. I have always considered it an above average song at best and, as a result, often wonder why it inevitably makes every live set list and Stryper compilation (including this one). The main reason being, obviously, is that its video was a big MTV hit back in the day. Regardless, similar to “Honestly” perhaps it is time for this one to be also put to rest. Again, hearken back to my statement about how better TYABA cuts were overlooked in favor of “Calling On You” and you will understand my sentiment.
I might describe the two new songs as classic Stryper. “Bleeding From Inside Out” takes a melodic hard rock heading with plenty of guitar harmonies and the polished backing vocals to match. “Blackened” ranks alongside the fastest Stryper songs since “The Reign” (from In God We Trust”). Yes, tempo is furious, but it is the huge, catchy chorus that sets the song apart. Michael’s scintillating lead guitar work rounds the pair out. Also of note is the all out heaviness to the two. It is good to know Stryper is not mellowing with age.
If the quality the pair brings is any indicator then the new album Stryper is at work on (at the time of this writing) should be fantastic. But let’s also hope the group is not spreading itself too thin either in that Michael Sweet is soon to release a new solo album in addition to providing the songwriting for the yet to be titled upcoming album. When an artist brings such a level of productivity over a short period of time is when the occasional filler track can slip through the cracks. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.
A few final observations before summing up:
Album artwork could have been improved upon. While a band photo on the cover is never a bad thing, having the guys dress in black outfits and then placing them over a black backdrop does not create the most flattering effect. The Japan version, with the Stryper logo in place of the band photo instead, works much better.
Michael Sweet sings in a lower register throughout the project. The logic can be found in the artists own words: “The fact (is) that I sound a little more like a man (on Second Coming) instead of a helium-induced kid at Disneyland (in comparison to his performance on the original versions)”. True to form Michael does a good job throughout, although it took a couple listens to get comfortable with his lower key focus, keeping in mind I had grown used to his high end style after having listened to Stryper since the mid-eighties.
On Second Coming Stryper not only successfully captures the magic of its initial recordings, but in the process surpasses them and adds some new magic as well. In the end the group won me over in that Second Coming proves more than an ideal scenario as a follow up to The Covering.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Loud N’ Clear” (3:46), “Loving You” (4:27), “Soldiers Under Command” (5:08), “Makes Me Wanna Sing” (2:50), “First Love” (5:22), “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” (4:53), “Reach Out” (5:24), “Surrender” (4:19), “To Hell With The Devil” (4:06), “Calling On You” (3:41), “Free” (3:41), “The Way” (3:37), “Sing-Along Song” (4:23), “More Than A Man” (4:34), “Bleeding From Inside Out” (3:44), “Blackened” (3:08)
Michael Sweet - Lead Vocals & Guitars
Oz Fox - Guitars
Tim Gaines - Bass
Robert Sweet - Drums
Charles Foley - Keyboards
Paul McNamara - Keyboards