|Musical Style: Melodic Metal||Produced By: Michael Sweet|
|Record Label: Frontiers||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2013||Artist Website: Stryper|
|Tracks: 12||Rating: 95%|
No More Hell To Pay proves that when Stryper plays to its strengths, there are few better at producing eighties influenced melodic metal and hard rock. The album represents a true return to form for the group after several close calls and near misses, including its 2005 comeback album Reborn (65% Angelic Warlord review) in which it went in a “modern” direction to a fault (missing are the layered vocal melodies and shred guitar leads long term fans have come to embrace). Murder By Pride (85% review) from 2009 might have been the better effort with its focus on more of a throwback sound but also suffered from thin production and cover artwork that left somewhat desired (not to mention that long term members bassist Tim Gaines and drummer Robert Sweet did not participate).
On No More Hell To Pay Stryper continues to pay tribute to its eighties roots but takes things to the next level and then some. It starts with how the group merges the darker heaviness of To Hell With The Devil with the metallic edges to Soldiers Under Command- all the while emphasizing its trademark vocal melodies and duel soloing abilities. Further factor first rate production and eye catching album artwork - not to mention the return of Tim Gaines and Robert Sweet - and you have Stryper playing to those strengths in question and creating perhaps its finest work ever as a result.
Now, Soldiers Under Command and To Hell With The Devil are widely regarded as classics- and rightly so! This reviewer cannot help but concur, but also find the albums somewhat inconsistent in that each includes at least one skip button (my opinion only): ): “(Waiting For) A Love That’s Real” (from SUC) and “All Of Me” (THWTD). The two also lack in the continuity department. Consider how many deem Stryper at its best when heaviest, yet neither album places its heavier songs side by side in the track listing. THWTD, for instance, opens to its metal based title track before moving on to the more commercial sounding “Calling On You”. Melodic hard rocker “Free” ensues which is followed by keyboard ballad “Honestly” and another heavier track in “The Way”. How much variety do you need?
With No More Hell To Pay, however, these problems have been rectified by touching upon a consistency and continuity not seen from the group since Against The Law. A similar type of maturity emerges in that you will find no skip buttons amidst the twelve No More Hell To Pay tracks. The album, at the same time, does deliver an element of variety but is not all over the map stylistically either. Rather, the emphasis is on showcasing the heavier side to the Stryper songwriting abilities- and satisfyingly placing such songs back-to-back-to-back in the process.
This is best exemplified in how the album opens to two of its better and heavier tracks in “Revelation” and “No More Hell To Pay” (stand out melodies on both and certain to be concert favorites) prior to the near speed metal romp that is “Saved By Love”. Hard rocking “Jesus Is Just Alright” cover (with two straight cover albums under its belt, the group, as one might imagine, nails this one) succeeds and gives way to heavy rock ballad “The One” (as opposed to some of the keyboard ballads from the eighties).
When listening to the album for the first time, I could not help but think there must be at least one skip button among the final seven tracks (or at the very least another ballad or two). Not so either way in that Stryper satisfyingly closes things with seven quality hard rockers all of which lend to repeat play. “Sympathy” and “Renewed” touch upon the group’s high energy side, while “Water Into Wine” reflects a catchier and more riff driven aspect. Militant anthem “Marching Into Battle” and “Legacy” deliver a hit like a ton of bricks metal sound and “Te Amo” and “Sticks & Stones” a melodic hard rock penchant.
The result of all four original Stryper members working on the same projects speaks for itself, particularly from a performance standpoint. Michael Sweet leads the way with his high-octane vocal abilities, continuing to display an affinity for a high note (he can still let loose with a falsetto at a moments notice) but also able to sing in a lower register (such as on “The One”) or add some raw edged grit to his delivery (as he does on “Saved By Love”). The overall feel is that he has not lost anything since the groups eighties heyday (sort of like Rob Rock).
Michael continues to combine with Oz Fox for guitar duties, the two responsible for making No More Hell To Pay Stryper’s most consistently heaviest release. Yes, walls of rhythm guitars dominate throughout but so are the polished guitar harmonies in which the group has gained renown (standing out best on “Te Amo”). From a lead guitar standpoint a duel lead role is taken, with Michael’s soloing still of a melodic nature and Oz’s faster and more aggressive (the two continue to complement one another from this standpoint). Check out the lead guitar trade off closing “Jesus Is Just Alright” for what the two are capable.
It is encouraging to hear Tim Gaines’ prominent bass lines helping to anchor the low-end groove. Likewise, Robert Sweet remains his technically creative “visual timekeeper” self. Yes, he might be reigned in somewhat (at least in comparison to his work on the various The Seventh Power projects in which he has participated) but still displays a flair for playing to the strength of the song while maintaining his impromptu sensibilities.
Production is excellent in reflecting that swarthy THWTD vibe: Guitars weighty and in the forefront with vocals placed appropriately in the mix. Enough room is allowed for bass and drums to breath every bit as much.
No More Hell To Pay adds up to the work long term Stryper fans have been waiting literally for decades (if released in 1988 instead of In God We Trust it would have sold 10 million copies). Consistency and continuity, again, are the words that come to mind in that the group has outdid itself from both a songwriting and performance standpoint. Overall, as a reviewer I am proud of what Stryper has accomplished and cannot help but feel its press material sums things up best: “If you're a Stryper fan, (No More Hell To Pay will) make you proud to be one. If you're not, listen with caution as you may actually become one”.
Track By Track
Album opens to two of its best tracks in “Revelation” and “No More Hell To Pay”. Former maintains a steady mid-paced course while reinforcing the trademark Stryper guitar driven crunch. Melody, however, plays the prevailing role with its immediately recognizable qualities (commercial in form but not to a fault). Michael’s lead guitar work lends a melodic feel. In the end the perfect joining of melody and heaviness. Lyric snippet:
In, in, in, in an instant will the trumpet blow
Sin, sin, sin is counted, the fee is tolled
Blood, blood, blood will run and turn the waters red
A flood, a flood will wash away the devil's bed
There's a revelation
It's coming down for you
It's gonna bring the truth
Latter maintains the heavy penchant but taking the darker and weightier direction. Also mid-paced, the albums title track plays up front to back bristling guitar harmonies with soloing on the razor edged side of things. Melody pulls you in at once in proving every bit as accessible (put this on radio back in the day and it would shine). It is also good to hear Michael cut loose with some well-timed falsettos. Lyric snippet
If the dawn reveals the end of days
I'll follow You till there's no more hell to pay!
You have given me a gift I won't deny
and You're offering a better world to come
The sorrow of tomorrows left so far behind
with the joy of what this life will soon become
If I'm deep in the storm,
if I'm caught in the rain
From the time I was born
it's You that always remained!
“Saved By Love” ranks with Stryper’s fastest (sort of like “The Reign” off In God We Trust). Accordingly, tempo is furious with Robert providing the unyielding timekeeping mentality (he really goes ballistic behind the drum kit here) and chorus of a curtly nature (Michael adds to grit and gravel to his vocal delivery in the process). Interestingly, Stryper adds some of its trademark polished vocal melodies at the halfway point. Lyric snippet:
We can’t forget, what brought us this far
It’s heaven sent, beyond the big star
Just when we’re feeling that we’re going down
We can’t go on anymore – we’re restored
We can’t go on if we feel there’s no wrong
Hurting the ones that we need
When brothers and sisters are moving along
Reaping and sowing the seed
Oh the one thing that we have that lights up the dark
And shows us what we need to see – look above
“The Jesus Is Just Alright” cover comes across without flaw. Which is a good thing in that as opposed to sticking to the Gospel flavor of the original (by the Art Reynolds Singers from 1966), Stryper lends a hard rocking edge in the form of driving guitars and rhythms and vocal melodies in abundance (particularly for the keyed up chorus). My favorite parts include the bridge at the halfway point in which organ decorated the backdrop and tradeoff solo jam session covering the final minute and a half.
Lone ballad “The One” follows. Yes, this might be the albums calmest but it still stays true to the heavier rocking mentality at hand. In other words, what we have is a ballad that backs from the keyboard underpinnings of its eighties counterparts, which is a very good thing. Tight guitar harmonies make their presence felt as does an every fitting emotional milieu. A very nice effort that lends an element of versatility. Lyric snippet:
I’ve blown up our world, and scattered pieces behind
A boy and innocent girl, defined one of a kind
Love was making, we were taking
But now it’s harder to find
I say with a smile, all I should with a word
You’ve stayed for a while, it’s bordering on absurd
Cause that’s your glory and pains my story
But grace is what I’d prefer
“Legacy” represents a return to a classic melodic metal heading. This one hits hard and fast from the get go, with its distorted guitar aspects prevailing and plenty of complementary screams and falsettos at hand. No, not quite as frenetic as “Saved By Love” but darker and with the greater pronounced low-end. Chorus even gives rise to some stately and regal qualities that help lend to a contrasting environs. Lyric snippet:
We’ve built an empire
That in the end we can’t take with us
We walk the high wire
We cross the boundaries and that’s our rush
But when we step beyond the other side
There will be nothing to hide – What’s our Legacy?
Will we be humbled far beyond our pride?
Or are we in for a rough ride - What’s our Legacy
Militant metal piece “Marching Into Battle” rates with the albums heaviest. Rhythm section locks into a steadfast groove, with Robert underpinning things with his resolute drum fills and Gaines’ bass setting the pronounced tone. Otherwise an anthem-like feel prevails with an over the top big choir chorus standing alongside the shredding lead guitar work. This one sounds as if written with Soldiers Under Command in mind. Lyric snippet:
I saw The Heavens open, and behold a white horse
The One that was sitting upon him, was called faithful and true
His eyes were like two burning flames, on His head a gold crown
He wore a vesture of blood, with a name nobody knew
Out of His mouth came a sword, He used to smite the nations
The beast and false prophet were bound, and cast into the sea
They’re followers slain by Almighty, fowls they fed upon them
When I learned that Stryper planned a Spanish song, I was not certain what to expect: Would Michael be singing in Spanish? Or perhaps Stryper is going Salsa on us? Fortunately, neither holds true in that what we have in “Te Amo” is a classic melodic hard rocker, up-tempo in heading with a big hook chorus and commercial milieu prevailing. I am reminded somewhat of “Free” (off To Hell With The Devil). The only Spanish at hand resides in the songs chorus. Lyric snippet:
You were there when I could sense no other soul
And you cared when I was down and letting go
You’re an angel that came down to earth to be
The saving grace to help this non believer see
There is more, so much more
Hidden deep beneath a land of stone
Now it’s known, I’m not alone
Te Amo – Living, dying, young and old
Te Amo – You’re a treasure with a heart of gold
“Stick & Stones” comes across heavier weightier, mid-paced and staunch as it gets with a pronounced low-end setting the earnest backbone. Chorus, contrastingly, lightens things with its smoother essence (almost with a pop flavor but not to a fault). More amazing lead guitar work (courtesy of Oz this time) rounds out another classic melodic metal piece. Lyric snippet:
Sticks and Stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me so they say
Oh well, yours hurt like hell
I’m a fighter on the mend
And I will rise above the world you spin
You fail, I wish you well
I’m letting go of you - I’m letting go of me
I’m letting go of all the things that hold me down emphatically
I’m letting go of time – I’m letting go of space
I’m letting go of all the waste I’ve carried to this place
Riff driven monster “Water Into Wine” plays up a crunch heavy aura, unwavering from the bass guitar driven groove of its verses and more trenchant form of the resounding chorus with its battering feel (very catchy with the songs title chanted in heavy set fashion). Again, the low-end shines while the deeper and darker guitar mix set the dominant tone. An Against The Law type aspect can be found here as a result. Lyric snippet:
If He were here today, what would we say?
Would we repeat the past, or let Him lead the way
Minds jaded, life’s faded - will we answer the call?
To keep fighting – Uniting, and stand up tall
He turned Water Into Wine
And made the blind man see
He cast devils out, into swine
He’s came to set you free
Back to up-tempo with “Sympathy”, a keyed up piece with metallic edges laying the foundation (for the staunch as it gets verses) and emotional aura throughout (the smooth as it gets chorus comes to mind). The riff driven focus hints of “Water Into Wine”, with a catchy bearing aligning with the poignant qualities throughout. I particularly enjoy how the blazing leads give way to a bridge carried by pounding drums (lending to the heavier penchant either way). Lyric snippet:
Step inside my carnival, where everything’s a ride
Up and down, it’s all around, turning side to side
I’m the outlaw - I’m the law
My way or the highway – I’m one dimensional
I broke the mold and tossed the clay, incomprehensible
I’m the only - A rarity
As hearts degrade, can I find some sympathy?
As mercy fades, I am blind but I just I want to see
“Renewed” returns things to a high energy direction not unlike “Legacy”. Tempo churns and swarms with ardent guitar tones and technical underpinnings setting the unwavering tone (check out the slower passages at the halfway point when guitars and bass move to the front of the mix) and catchy melody leaning towards the accessible. I can see this one being a concert staple. Lyric snippet:
I am tired, breaking down
I’m unwired, tied and bound
I look to the sky, I see You all around
When I close my eyes, I dream that I am found
You’re standing there, you’re power I can feel
You move upon me, like a river made of steel
But I’m Giving Myself Up And Over To You
Take Me, Shape Me, Break Me, Make Me Renewed
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Revelation” (4:30), “No More Hell To Pay” (4:53), “Saved By Love” (3:06), “Jesus Is Just Alright” (5:17), “The One” (4:19), “Legacy” (4:14), “Marching Into Battle” (4:44), “Te Amo” (4:06), “Sticks & Stones” (4:19), “Water Into Wine” (3:49), “Sympathy” (4:11), “Renewed” (4:30)
Michael Sweet - Lead Vocals & Guitars
Oz Fox - Guitars
Tim Gaines - Bass
Robert Sweet - Drums