|Musical Style: Melodic Metal||Produced By: Michael Sweet|
|Record Label: Frontiers||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2014||Artist Website: Stryper|
|Tracks: 16||Rating: No Quote|
|Running Time: 75:17|
When Stryper released its debut EP The Yellow And Black Attack in the summer of 1984, it was on the leading edge of what became known as the ‘white metal movement’. This was an unprecedented period for the hard music scene in which a literal flood of ‘white metal bands’ came out of the woodwork in the wake of Stryper’s commercial success, the majority of which have either come and gone (Messiah Prophet, Neon Cross), never got signed (Soldier, Apostle), or returned following extended hiatus (Bloodgood, Sacred Warrior, Guardian). Thirty years later, with the eighties metal heyday shrinking in our rearview mirror, Stryper remains head and shoulders above them all with a Fort Knox secure legacy in terms of longevity, output and overall quality to body of work.
Many of my favorite Stryper memories date to the beginning, with having learned of the group from a photo in an old Campus Life magazine while later being blown away by the The Yellow And Black Attack. It was not just the glaring yellow and back striped outfits or the Isaiah 53:5 “By His Stripes We Are Healed” reference on the back cover that got my attention but also musical direction: Heavier than some and more commercial than others but also yielding a high level of musical competence that both transcended the groups age and outshined many of its contemporaries. Accordingly, I considered Stryper back in the day a group of anointed but testosterone driven and adrenaline fueled twenty something guys that fulfilled at a young age that assignment and calling in question as outlined in I Corinthians 7:17.
My first Stryper show soon followed, headlining a Portland, Oregon high school auditorium with nearby act Saint opening, and second (at the same venue) as part of the Soldiers Under Command tour in which Seattle based Bloodgood opened. Latter was by far the best concert I have attended, with both bands in red-hot prime form and firing on all cylinders. I distinctly recall guitarist Oz Fox shouting into the microphone, “When we get back to LA we’re going to tell everyone that Portland rocks!” I am willing to bet house money that he did not say the same thing about the weather… In terms of the former, near the end of the set vocalist Michael Sweet sat down and shared the faith with an audience a good percentage of which more than likely never had set foot in a church before, which is what the ‘white metal movement’ is truly about.
The To Hell With The Devil tour took Stryper to a theater in downtown Portland, while the Northwest leg of the In God We Trust tour was cancelled (I believe due to band illness). Like many, I was not enamored with the commercial feel to IGWT but found the heavier and more consistent Against The Law better in line with the group’s true sound. Hence, the disappointment of Stryper breaking up in the early nineties at just the point it was hitting its musical stride. The remainder of the decade, due to the burgeoning grunge scene, was unfriendly to metal fans in that many of my favorite groups also disbanded or (worse yet) ‘turned modern’. Musically, things did not start to pick up following the turn of the century when several well-known acts (Narnia and Jacobs Dream come to mind) started to come into their own, while Rob Rock launched his solo career. It also did not hurt that talented new bands such as Theocracy (self-titled), Harmony (Dreaming Awake) put out their debut releases, and that Stryper reunited.
Stryper’s tour of the US in the fall of 2003 to celebrate its 20th anniversary, leading to its first live album released the following year 7 Weeks: Live In America, 2003, got the reunion ball rolling. What completely set it in motion, however, was the decision by Michael Sweet to turn his recently recorded new solo album into a full-fledged Stryper record, with Reborn from 2005 the start to what has been a very prolific period for the group. Two cover albums and three full-length recordings of original material followed over the next eight years before Stryper put out its second live album in the fall of 2014, Live At The Whiskey.
Released on Frontiers Records as a 16-track CD/DVD combination, the album, as its namesake implies, captures a prime Stryper performance at the Whiskey A Go Go in West Hollywood at the start of the No More Hell To Pay tour. The first question that comes to mind when approaching a live album, obviously, is track listing. Live At The Whiskey succeeds from this standpoint in that the group put a great deal of thought into songs chosen, with a tasteful selection from the classic first five albums represented along with choice tracks from the aforementioned No More Hell To Pay.
As one would expect, a live album from a band with Stryper’s longevity is going to feature its share of popular hits. The group does not disappoint with the inclusion of long-term concert staple “Calling On You”. No, not my favorite from Stryper but deserves to be here nonetheless based upon its heavy MTV rotation back in the day; likewise “Free”, the better song in my opinion, also received its share of MTV play. The live rendering of “Free” (similar to its studio version) does an excellent job capturing the groups tightly woven guitar and vocal melodies. “Always There For You”, the lone IGWT piece, reflects the songs trademark polish but comes across (satisfyingly) with that much more muscle and edge live. Nice vocal range by Michael Sweet on this one as well. Also, note the exclusion of “Honestly”, a decision I agree with in that perhaps the song has received a bit too much play over the years.
Any good live album will encompass its share of deep cuts and such is the case here. It starts with the almost never played live “You Know What To Do”, emotional as always with its blues driven groove and every bit abundant guitar harmonies, but also includes lone Against The Law number “All For One”, smoothly flowing from its darker mid-paced emphasis and bottom heavy milieu (bassist Tim Gaines gets quite the work out on this one). “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” remains an all out metal slugfest in which Stryper puts its musicianship on full display: Drummer Robert Sweet is all over the place with his technical drumming, while Michael and Oz duel from a soloing standpoint.
Trademark concert stapes there are in plenty, including the high energy and catchy “Loud N’ Clear”, still featuring the bass solo that gives way to shred lead guitar instrumental break, and mirthful “Reach Out”, contrasting from its melodic hard rock vibe with the trademark Stryper vocal melodies duplicated with ease live. The hulking “More Than A Man” continues to combine a strapping and forthright presence with a strong statement of faith:
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 for you to start
Giving God all the glory
Concert ends to the powerhouse trio of “The Way”, “To Hell With The Devil” and “Soldiers Under Command”, three of Stryper’s heaviest and best tracks. Michael lets loose with several screams on “The Way” that prove he has not lost anything vocally over the years, while I like how “To Hell With The Devil” comes with its keyboard “Abyss” opening not to mention crowd singing along during both the chorus and verses. “Soldiers Under Command” is the lone track in which Stryper breaks from the mold of its studio equivalent in carrying it past seven minutes with an extended acapella vocal opening.
Four strong selections were taken from No More Hell To Pay. Fast, fluid and heavy hitting, “Legacy” highlights more air tight drumming from Robert Sweet; in similar fashion “Marching Into Battle” powers and mauls with its trenchant guitars and militant rhythms. Albums title track gives rise to a melodically tinged but somber feel along with a backbone of intricate bass guitar and “Jesus Is Just Alright” another scintillating stretch of duel lead guitar (it cannot be emphasized enough how confident Stryper is with its instrumental sound in a live setting). Too bad the group did not have time to perform other NMHTP cuts such as “Revelation” and “Sympathy”.
While difficult to come up with anything constructive about a live album the quality of Live At The Whiskey, perhaps Stryper could have dug a bit deeper into its back catalog and included a few more from IGWT or ATL or at least one each from the underrated Reborn and Murder By Pride. In order to go that route the group would have to extend the release into a 2-CD set (similar to what Barren Cross did with its live album from last year, Birth Pangs). The 2-CD route would have allowed Stryper to present the show in its entirety with band member introductions, complementary guitar, bass and drum solos and more banter between the band and audience.
Production might not yield the same polish as that on 7 Weeks: Live In America, 2003, but that is by no means a bad thing. When it comes to live albums, I want a group to add just enough polish and then back off a touch. Live At The Whiskey succeeds in this aspect from reflecting the rawness associated with live recordings (in a positive sense) while showcasing a professional sound at the same time. Some live releases exhibit so much polish that they come across as compilations of studio versions to individual songs backed by an accompanying audience track. Fortunately, this is not the case with Live At The Whiskey.
Since this is such a lengthy review, I am going to summarize succinctly by stating that Live At The Whiskey is a strong live album with a thoughtful song selection and energetic band performance. If a fan of Stryper or live hard rock albums in general then you know what to do (no pun intended): Make Live At The Whiskey a priority purchase!
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Legacy” (4:20), “Marching Into Battle” (4:43), “You Know What To Do” (4:39), “Loud N’ Clear” (3:42), “Reach Out” (5:11), “Calling On You” (3:40), “Free” (3:46), “More Than A Man” (4:39), “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” (5:01), “No More Hell To Pay” (5:04), “Jesus Is Just Alright” (5:08), “Always There For You” (4:24), “All For One” (4:29), “The Way” (3:56), “To Hell With The Devil” (5:26), “Soldiers Under Command” (7:03)
Michael Sweet - Lead Vocals & Guitars
Oz Fox - Guitars
Timothy Gaines - Bass
Robert Sweet - Drums