|Musical Style: Rock||Produced By: Billy Smiley|
|Record Label: Cul De Sac||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2016||Artist Website: The Union Of Sinners & Saints|
|Tracks: 12||Rating: 85%|
|Running Time: 50:18|
You know how sometimes the planets just align and everything goes right? Kismet. That’s exactly what happened when Petra lead vocalist John Schlitt and White Heart guitarist Billy Smiley joined forces last fall to begin work on new material, with the resulting partnership culminating in a new ‘super group’ in The Union Of Sinners & Saints (which also includes White Heart bassist Anthony Sallee and Tree 63 drummer John Ellis). Petra and White Heart, obviously, need no introduction as leading players within the Christian music scene since the early eighties, having combined to sell over 12 million albums worldwide in addition to producing more than 25 number one songs and being recipient to over 15 Grammy and over 40 Dove Nominations and Awards.
My experience with White Heart and Petra has not been nearly as productive. The early CCM-ish White Heart material - White Heart (1982), Vital Signs (1984) and Hotline (1985) – failed to garner my interest, but starting in the late eighties the group released a string of well-received melodic rock to AOR albums of which Freedom (1989) and Powerhouse (1990) are my favorites. Of note is how the latter includes what many consider the White Heart signature song in “Independence Day”.
While more often than not, I gravitate towards Greg X. Volz era Petra (noting how 1983 release Not Of This World is my favorite from the group), the John Schlitt era was not without its moments, including earlier albums Back To The Street (1986), This Means War! (1987) and On Fire! (1988). Where Schlitt era Petra put it all together and created its magnum opus, in my opinion, is Beyond Belief (1990) with its quintessential title track and musical and lyrical testimony that is “Creed”.
Lone drawback, however, is that Petra potentially went to the well a few too many times with the John & Dino Elefante production team, whom starting with Back To The Street produced nine Petra albums over a fifteen year span. If it is true that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, then in the music world it can lead to repetition and sameness of form, all of which potentially characterize many of the Petra albums of the period. I always felt, for instance, that starting in the early nineties the group ended up stuck in a rut musically and would have benefited from branching out and taking some risks by exploring much needed new musical territory.
Hence, one can understand my reservations when considering the Cul De Sac Records The Union Of Sinners & Saints self-titled debut full length from the summer of 2016. I was halfway expecting a ballad heavy praise and worship CCM album only to be pleasantly surprised to find a straight on rock album instead reflective of that ‘branching out’ and ‘exploring much needed new musical territory’ in question. By ‘straight on rock’, I am referencing the foundation of classic rock and melodic rock interwoven with aspects of blues based rock, hard rock, modern rock and worship rock that defines The Union Of Sinners & Saints sound.
Album starts with a bang to “Rise Up”, an up-tempo and high-energy rocker that walks a fine line between those The Union Of Sinners & Saints signature classic rock to melodic rock tendencies. Vocal melodies are flowing and hooks are of a commercial nature. “Brother To Brother” plays up a similar heightened momentum, but with the lone difference being some guitar tones with a decided modern quality, albeit not to a fault. Since, warm and affable is the feel at hand.
Immediate impression is how Schlitt still shines with his trademark gritty and raspy vocal delivery despite a career dating back five decades (artist got his start in the seventies with the mainstream classic rock group Head East). Similar to many of his contemporaries, Schlitt has aged quite well vocally over the years.
A cover of the White Heart classic “Independence Day” follows and The Union Of Sinners & Saints nails it. The songs immediately identifiable melody comes through at once, as do understated rhythm guitars and airy keyboards in just the right amounts either way. A classy cover of Petra’s “Beyond Belief” is also included, which likewise entices with its hit you between the eyes melody and hints of flattering organ decorating the backdrop. Guitars in particular make a pronounced statement on this one.
“The Things We Do” maintains the up-tempo leanings but in a fiery blues based rock package. Highlighting one of the albums more inspired pieces is plenty of organ and shuffling guitar licks and chops not to mention a big as it gets chorus hook. “Bittersweet” entices equally with its bare bones hard rock demeanor. By far the albums heaviest, the song churns to resounding guitars and bottom heavy low end while playing up the same hook driven emphasis. In the end, these are two of my favorites in what amounts an album with plenty of solid tracks.
Also inherit to the pair (not to mention the entire album) is lead guitar of quite the high quality. Line notes mention three guitarists, and so I am not certain who does what on which song but soloing proves quite accomplished throughout.
Of the albums slower material, I find “Lone Soldier” stands out the most. The song proves relaxed and easy going in capacity, with keyboards and piano lending a Gospel flavor in playing up one of the albums stronger choruses and finest heartfelt vocal performance from Schlitt. “Now Not Never” is solid as well, upholding the same composed aspects but with the more forthright tempo and non-stop hooks to spare. Some bluesy slide guitar makes its presence felt along with heavier rocking guitars that kick in past the halfway point.
Albums least remarkable songs are its ballads, “The Call” and “The Offering”. Former comes across in the form of a semi-ballad, giving rise to what sounds like programmed drums, atmospheric keyboards and larger than life backing vocals. Latter is a classic wave your lighter in the air power ballad, softer and more tempered in form with piano and distant guitars lending a bluesy effect. Yes, both are still good and not skip worthy, but I also would have preferred if an additional heavier rocking piece had replaced one of either instead.
The Union Of Sinners & Saints shines when stepping outside the box, as it does on the punk-ish to wave-like sounds to “Old Guys Rule”. Ranking alongside my albums favorite tracks, “Old Guys Rule” proves a raucous and belligerent rocker with the slashing guitars and lower-register vocal performance from Schlitt to match.
Also a bit different is closing worship rock piece “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today”. The song joyfully marries keyboards and acoustic guitar in an upbeat package in which a killer guitar solo and sing along backing vocals stand out. It might be easy to say this one is a bit formula, but it is equally easy to digest in light of how it is the only cut of its kind to grace the album (add an additional worship rock piece or two and it might change my opinion).
I do not think it would be unfair to place The Union Of Sinners & Saints under a Christian label lyrically. “Rise Up” makes a straightforward statement of faith in this regard:
I’ve been calling you in life
To fill this empty space inside
You are the way, the truth, the life
Bringing me to my father
You’re everything I need
To fill me up and make me see
The day you opened up my eyes…to shine
As does “Lone Soldier”:
Gotta let it go and trust how big it is
The road is long and winds and it seems it never ends
Gotta let it go and trust how you will lead
He gives us what we need
Don’t turn away – don’t toss the hope of a lone soldier
Cuz it ain’t over – ‘til you find what is there for you
Don’t look around just keep the way straight as an arrow
The path is narrow but it’s wide enough for you
But it’s wide enough for you, for you
“Old Guys Rule” celebrates the maturity and wisdom that comes with experience:
Wisdom is nothing to laugh about
Too often we throw it away
The value of all this experience
Is something we all should embrace
Don’t let anybody put you down
Cuz everything will always come around
We saw it then like we see it now
Then is now…Then is now…
Old guys rule, We ain’t fools
“The Offering” is aptly entitled:
So come now and see, the king of all kings
The Lord of our hearts has come before us
So take me, use me, mold me, and make me
Into the one I should be
And teach me, show me, lovingly change me
Into the one I can be…
So take me, use me, mold me and make me
Into the one I should be… this is my offering
Repeat listen to The Union Of Sinners & Saints reveals it to offer more variances than Petra and (to a lesser degree) White Heart, but in no way is it a metal or hard rock album either. That said, if into either genre I would encourage you to give the group strong consideration, particularly if classic rock and AOR is your cup of tea. The album also delivers the rawer and edgier sound when placed alongside much of the Schlitt fronted Petra material in skirting the robotic-often-sounds-the-same-covered-in-too-much-glitz-and-polish Elefante production. Hence, if turned off by Petra for said reason then likewise The Union Of Sinners & Saints may very well be to your liking.
It was my experience that The Union Of Sinners & Saints exceeds all expectation and not due to those expectations being low to begin with but rather the quality of the product at hand. I find the album to deliver some top-notch material accordingly, with “The Things We Do”, “Bittersweet”, “Lone Soldier” and “Old Guys Rule” my choice cuts and everything else quite solid (not a skip button among its twelve tracks). Ultimately, the album owes its success to the veteran partnership between Schlitt and Smiley, whom successfully steer it away from sounding too much like Petra and White Heart and sounding like, well, the Union Of Sinners & Saints instead. By giving the album the time and attention it deserves I am sure you will agree with me that these ‘old guys rule’!
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Rise Up” (4:41), “Brother To Brother” (4:17), “Independence Day” (4:33), “Now Not Never” (3:53), “Lone Soldier” (5:12), “The Things We Do” (3”50), “Old Guys Rule” (3:16), “The Call” (4:20), “Beyond Belief” (4:27), “My Offering” (4:25), “Bittersweet” (4:21), “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today” (3:02)
John Schlitt - Lead Vocals
Billy Smiley - Guitars & Keyboards
Jason Fowler - Guitars
Jonathan Crone - Guitars & Keyboards
Anthony Sallee - Bass
Jon Knox - Drums