Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Music of 2013 - Part 1

2013 has been another excellent year for new music. With each passing year, my musical palette widens slightly and I find myself buying more and more new albums. Since I have started reviewing albums on this blog, I have taken more care when listening to new music and I think this has benefited my overall listening experience. I have enjoyed writing these reviews and, from the modest viewing figures my blog gets, it seems that a few people out there also enjoy reading them. The figures are never huge, but they are enough to keep me writing them. My Top 10 albums of the year will be posted tomorrow, but this year I thought it might be nice to do a more general post first that sums up 2013's music a little bit and gives me a chance to talk about some albums I never had time to review. When deciding whether or not to review an album there are a few things I take into account. How long the album has been out is a major factor. If an album came out in March and I finally got around to buying it in September, I will not review it as it has been out too long for my review to really mean anything. Also, some albums I just do not really have anything to say about them. Albums that fall into this category are usually pretty average releases with nothing either very good or very bad about them. Those kind of albums are very hard to review and it is easier just not to bother as they will only end up being either: very short; or pointless waffling about nothing in particular. However, there are some albums that I never got a chance to review, for whatever reason, and would like to briefly talk about here. They will not be proper reviews, but little tasters of the albums and why I like them. There are five I am going to talk about and they will be done in alphabetical order by band name.

Amorphis' eleventh studio album Circle is the first of these albums. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, Amorphis have really found their sound and Circle is a culmination of everything that has been great about the Joutsen era so far. Their mix of progressive, folk and melodic death metal is extremely unique and is showcased well on this album. As always Esa Holopainen's guitar leads are the focus of the music, and they are the main source of melody in what can sometimes be a dense and heavy sound. Amorphis always use light and shade well and on Circle this is no exception. Anthemic, melodic moments like The Wanderer mix well with the heavy Nightbird's Song to create an album with plenty of depth and variety. Their use of traditional folk instruments, particularly flutes, in places just adds an edge of authenticity to their sound that some similar bands lack. This is an excellent album that any prog fan is sure to love, as well as any serious metalhead.

Moving to much more traditional hard rock territory, Burning Rain's third album Epic Obession is a real throwback to the 1980s when rock ruled the world. The songwriting team of frontman Keith St. John and guitar legend Doug Aldrich (Lion; Hurricane; Bad Moon Rising; Dio; Whitesnake) has produced a solid rock album of memorable riffs, big choruses and fluid guitar solos. While it does not live up to Aldrich's last couple of albums with Whitesnake there is still plenty to enjoy here. St. John's bluesy voice is perfectly suited to ballads like Heaven Gets Me By and Aldrich's slightly sleazy riffs make Ride the Monkey and My Lust Your Fate some of the best pure hard rock songs to be written outside of a major band in years. It suffers from being slightly overlong but the production and general performance is excellent. Anyone who likes good, old-fashioned hard rock should check this out, as well as those who are a fan of Aldrich's guitar playing.

It is the turn of symphonic metal now and ReVamp's second studio album Wild Card. This was released around the time that frontwoman Floor Jansen (After Forever; Nightwish) was annouced as the full-time replacement for Anette Olzon in Nightwish so there was a fair bit of interest surrounding this release. The self-titled release from 2010 felt more like Jansen's solo album but this one has a real band feel with good contributions from guitarist Jord Otto and keyboardist Ruben Wijga in particular. It is heavier than your average symphonic metal release, focusing on big guitar riffs and furious drumming. Jansen's massive vocal range is used well here, and sees her even delivering some excellent harsh vocals on occation. Well placed guest vocals from Mark Jansen (After Forever; Epica; MaYaN) and Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad; Devin Townsend Project) mix things up nicely and songs like the Anatomy of a Nervous Breakdown suite and the bombastic Precibus show that Jansen is an excellent songwriter as well as an excellent vocalist!

Melodic death metal is as popular as ever and Soilwork have always been one of the leading and most accessible bands in the genre. In 2013 they released their ninth album The Living Infinite which was advertised as the first double album in melodic death metal history. New guitarist David Andersson filled the songwriting shoes of Peter Wichers perfectly and has created a monster of an album along with frontman Björn 'Speed' Strid and the rest of the band. For a double album, it is extremely consistent with very little filler to be found. As usual, the songs are full of massive, anthemic choruses that are made to be heard live. Songs like Spectrum of Eternity and This Momentary Bliss are classic Soilwork but there are a few more experimental moments such as the haunting closing track Owls Predict, Oracles Stand Guard and a few little instrumental interludes break up the pace slightly.

The final album I am going to talk about is the traditional heavy metal stylings of White Wizzard. 2013's The Devils Cut is their third album and probably their best up to this point. Frontman Joseph Michael's powerful voice and the twin lead guitar attack of Will Wallner and Jake Dreyer evoke everything that was great about the NWOBHM movement while bassist Jon Leon's songwriting was tight and melodic. Lightning in my Hands and Kings of the Highway are the best of the bunch while songs like Strike the Iron are solidly enjoyable. It is just a shame that, yet again, the band spectacularly imploded while on tour here in the UK leaving only founding member Leon still left as a member of the band. However, without dwelling on the ins and outs of what was a very ugly and vitriolic split, this remains a great piece of retro metal for the 21st Century.

And now, as a little bonus, I would like to give a shout out to my favourite live release of the year. I do not normally talk about live albums/DVDs but I think it would be nice to mention this in my round up of 2013's music. The release I am talking about is Iced Earth's Live in Ancient Kourion which is 2CD/DVD release that is also avaliable on Blu Ray. This documents a mammoth two and a half hour set performed in Cyprus on the band's world tour promoting 2011's Dystopia. The band were on fire that night and fronman Stu Block shows us exactly why he is the band's current singer by effortlessly making the band's extensive back catalogue his own. The songs from Dystopia stand up strong against their classics from the past and sees a few rarer songs pulled out of the vaults like oldie When the Night Falls and the 16 minute epic Dante's Inferno. This an excellent document of an excellent tour and shows that new blood really can make a band raise it's game!

Talking of Iced Earth, this is a perfect moment to briefly talk about what albums I am looking forward to in 2014. This will round off the first part of this blog, with the Top 10 albums of 2013 coming tomorrow. Plagues of Babylon, Iced Earth's eleventh studio album is due next week and I am very excited to hear it. At the moment, I would say that it is my most anticipated album of 2014 and hearing clips of it have only reinforced this opinion. Another album I have pre-ordered is Bruce Springsteen's High Hopes. Springsteen is always hugely consistent so I expect this album will be as enjoyable as all his others. It is interesting in the fact that he is going back and revisiting old tracks that he never properly recorded or were only ever b-sides so it'll be nice to finally hear these songs properly. Grand Magus' Triumph and Power is also promising to be very good. The Swedish heavy metal titans have been on a great run of form recently so I expect their new album to be unashamedly heavy. Panic Room are also releasing their fourth album Incarnate which I am sure will be excellent. Having not seen the band since June, I have not heard any of the new songs live so will be going into the album totally blind. I am sure it will be very enjoyable and varied as always though! At the moment, these are my most anticipated albums of 2014, but there are plenty more on my radar and plenty more I am sure to be announced during the course of the year. Thank you for reading my reviews this year and come back tomorrow for my Top 10 albums of the year!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock's 'Bridge the Gap' - Album Review

Briefly, before starting this review, I would like to do a little bit of blog housekeeping. For anyone who regularly reads my blog (if there are any) and wondering when my Top 10 albums of 2013 list will be written I have decided that, like last year's list, it will be published on 1st January 2014. I know that this is later than most lists, but I wanted to get this review done first and give plenty of time to a couple of December releases incase they made late bids to be part of the list. Also, on the final day of 2013, I will write a post that will: sum up 2013 as a musical year from my perspective; give me a chance to talk about a few albums I did not get chance to review; and outline a few musical hopes for 2014. I hope that people have enjoyed reading my reviews over the past year, and this will be the final one of 2013!

Michael Schenker is one of rock's original guitar heroes. From his early days in the Scorpions, to finding huge success as a member of UFO, and to braching out on his own with the Michael Schenker Group (MSG); he has always been praised and held in high regard for his playing and songwriting abilities. Life has not always been easy for Schenker however, and long battles with both alcohol and drugs has led to some mediocre mid-career albums and sloppy live performances. Over the last few years though, he has cleaned up his act and is back to his best. The most recent MSG album, In the Midst of Beauty released in 2008, attracted mostly positive reviews and his solo album Temple of Rock from 2011 also was well received. The Temple of Rock tour has probably been his most successful in a long time. Rather than going out as MSG and being restricted to material from those albums, he decided to go out under his own name and play an anthology set covering his whole career. The band he established to play on that tour appear on his new album Bridge the Gap which is released under the name Michael Schenker's Temple of Rock - so this could be seen as the debut album of a whole new band rather than a continuation of MSG or his solo work. Handling the vocals and lyrics we have Doogie White (Rainbow; Cornerstone; Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Tank) who does a really solid job. I have always been a fan of his voice, and in my opinion he is one of the most underrated vocalists in rock. The rhythm section is made up of members from the classic Scorpions line-up and sees bassist Francis Buchholz and drummer Herman Rarebell play on their first album together since the Scorpions 1990 release Crazy World. Rounding out the band is Schenker's faithful rhythm guitarist and keyboard player Wayne Findlay who's 7 string guitar work helps to bulk out some of the album's more metal moments. The album has been produced by Michael Voss who actually handled most of the lead vocals on Temple of Rock and has done a good job with the production here. The mix is very balanced, giving equal attention to all of the instruments when necessary. I would have liked to have heard a bit more keyboard in the mix but when it is used it is used effectively.

After the short instrumental introduction Neptune Rising, the album proper gets underway with Where the Wild Winds Blow. It is clear that in White, Schenker has found another good songwriting partner. While some of the lyrics and melodies are a little too close to Ronnie James Dio's style to be called original, it fits in with the overall mood of the album. The crunching verses and epic pre-choruses are the perfect set up for an extremely melodic chorus that sees White make good use of his powerful voice. Towards the middle of the song there is a short acoustic guitar solo that is unexpected but works well before a more traditional Schenker-style solo takes over and shows us that the great man can still play after all his problems! Horizons was debuted on the Temple of Rock tour and went down well with the crowds. It is a much faster pace than the previous song and is more reminiscent of Schenker's work with the Scorpions. White's vocals in the chorus are, once again, very powerful and Rarebell's traditional double bass drumming gives it quite a NWOBHM feel in places. Lord of the Lost and Lonely is not quite as good as the previous two songs but still has it's moments. The tasteful guitar intro is catchy and memorable and the verses have a really good vocal melody that is backed up by some great organ work from Findlay. The chorus is a bit of a let down however and seems a little forced. The melody White sings works for the guitars but does not really suit his voice in my opinion. The next highlight is To Live for the King. There is a massive Rainbow vibe here with a very Ritche Blackmore-esque guitar line driving the verses and lots of vintage keyboard sounds to fill out the song. Those who are fans of Rainbow's final album, 1995's Stranger in Us All, which featured White on vocals will love this song. It is moody and powerful, and is probably my favourite on the album. The only thing that gives it away is the song's solo is definitely in Schenker's signature style as opposed to Blackmore's! Land of Thunder is another faster tune with a tasty main riff and tight drumming from Rarebell. In an album that is largely a mid-paced affair, it is nice to have the odd fast song to vary the pace a bit. It is always good to hear Schenker tackle a nice, fast riff which, after all, is what his career was built on!

Temple of the Holy has another great riff that seems to have some slightly Eastern influences in it's melody and phrasing. This is furthered by the swirling keyboards that back up the chugging verse and big chorus. It is songs like this that make me wish that the keyboards were slightly more prominent in the band's sound as they can really create a great atmosphere. The solo on this song might be one of Schenker's best on the album too. The Eastern melodies continue on into it and it just fits the mood of the song perfectly. The next highlight is Bridges We Have Burnt (which seems to be in direct contradiction with the album's title, intentional?) with it's chugging verse. Chugging verses seem to be a trend here, but White's vocals sound so good over them that I am not surprised Schenker included so many here. The chorus is also good and the short, occational breaks for clean guitar work help to make the song interesting. After the rather average Because You Lied, the album comes to a close with two really stellar tunes. The first of these, Black Moon Rising, is another that has a Rainbow feel about it. The verses definitely could have been sung by Dio as Buchholz's big bass and the organ create an eerie atmosphere before an epic chorus takes off. Schenker gives himself an extended solo section here too to show off his impressive skills. He is not considered a guitar hero for no reason after all! It all comes to an end with the upbeat Dance for the Piper that makes sure the album ends on a melodic note. The melodies in the chorus have an almost folky feel, you could almost jig to them! I really like the subtle change of pace that heralds the guitar solo and the song's last chorus seems to round out the album nicely. Overall, Bridge the Gap is an album that fans of Schenker's playing and songwriting will enjoy. It may not be a classic in the vein of UFO at their peak or those early MSG albums but it shows that Schenker is still a force to be reckoned with in the hard rock world. Anyone who enjoys good old traditional hard rock and metal should definitely give this a go as there is a lot to like here.

The album was released on 2nd December 2013 via In-Akustik. Below is the band's promotional trailer for the album Bridge the Gap.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Leaves' Eyes' 'Symphonies of the Night' - Album Review

Symphonic metal has always been a favourite metal subgenre of mine, and one that is pretty popular across the greater metal fanbase. Bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation are always very popular, and for good reason, but there are plenty of other great bands that do not get quite the same amounts of hype or exposure. Leaves' Eyes are one such band, and they have been releasing consistently good albums since their formation in 2003. Symphonies of the Night is their fifth album and their first since 2011's Meredead. In my opinion, Meredead was a great album that took the band to new places musically. It was a very diverse album mixing light and shade well and utilising many different languages throughout. The band's folk elements were very prominent on Meredead and overall it was not as heavy as their previous work. In that respect, Symphonies of the Night is more similar to 2009's Njord than Meredead. The big guitars, drums and harsh vocals are the emphasis here, and they create and excellent backdrop for frontwoman Liv Kristine's delicate vocals. The one thing that I felt Meredead was lacking was Alexander Krull's big presence. His distinctive growls were only heard on one song, the excellent Sigrlinn, so the 'beauty and the beast' vocal partnership the band are famous for was not really in force. Although he delivered some effective clean vocals on Empty Horizon, I felt that Meredead did suffer slightly from not utilising more of his vocal talents but, despite that, it is still a great album. Thankfully, on Symphonies of the Night, his vocals are back in full force! As usual, he has also handled the songwriting, production, programming and orchestration of the album which makes him a key player in the band's sound. Overall, the production is very good. The orchestrations are lush and everything sounds big, as it should on a metal album. My only complaint on this front is that the guitar tones used on the album are a little stark. While this sounds great for Leaves' Eyes' brother band Atrocity (check out their very good July 2013 release Okkult to see what I mean) it sounds a little bleak for Leaves' Eyes. In my opinion, a much warmer tone would have suited the songs a bit more. Guitarists Thorsten Bauer and Sander van der Meer return and, this time, van der Meer has been more involved with the songwriting which is nice to see. Once again, as on the band's last two albums, Bauer also handles the bass guitars. Symphonies of the Night also marks the debut of drummer Felix Born who has been playing with the band since 2012.

Hell to the Heavens gets the album off to a very strong start. With an accompanying video, this song is similar in style to Leaves' Eyes 'singles' of the past. It starts gently before the big guitars and Krull's vocals come in to kick off the album properly. The chorus is very bombastic and Kristine shows off the classical side of her voice to dramatic effect. It does not really break any new ground for the band, but it is the sort of song that fans of the band will greatly enjoy - which is probably why it was chosen as a single. Fading Earth is next and this is a much more basic song that focuses on the melodies. There are some nice guitar leads in the song's intro (something which the band do not use as often as others) and chorus really shows off Kristine's voice. She is a very underrated vocalist in my opinion and her performances on this album are brilliant throughout. There is a short guitar solo in the song too which, again, is something the band uses sparingly. Maid of Lorraine is one of the album's highlights in my opinion. The 'beauty and the beast' vocal partnership is used to good effect here with Kristine and Krull trading off sections of the song. Folky melodies weave their way in and out of the song and sees uilleann pipes and other traditional instruments mix with the guitars to create a really nice atmosphere. Heavy sections and dreamier sections blend together so well to create a mini epic and one of the best songs of the band's career so far. The folk elements are pushed further to the front on Galswintha and it sounds more like the materian found on Meredead. The acoustic-based intro has a distinct Celtic vibe to it, and this continues even once the heavy guitars and drums join in. Kristine's vocals really shine on this song. During the gentler acoustic sections she sounds playful but during the heavier sections she unleashes her full power to compete with Krull's backing vocals. She has never been as powerful as singers like Floor Jansen or Tarja Turunen but she has her own strengths and in my mind is just as good as those ladies in her own way. Symphony of the Night is another song that really makes good use of her extensive vocal styles. As the song's title would suggest, this is the most overtly symphonic song on the album. The chorus really is beautiful with Kristine's vocals floating easily over the metal elements and the tight orchestrations. Although the band do rely on the song's chorus a little more than perhaps they should (it is repeated maybe a couple of times more than necessary), it is so good that it barely seems to matter.

The next highlight is the dynamic Hymn to the Lone Sands. The first, more acoustic part, is sung in a different language (I apologise, I am not very good with languages so I do not know which one it is) but they return to English for the more bombastic remainder of the song. Again, it is a proper duet between Kristine and Krull. It has a slightly progressive feel with lots of different distinct musical sections and tempo changes. There are also a few nice instrumental sections which see lead guitars duelling with uilleann pipes, and both instruments get their own solos. The guitar work throughout this album is much more inventive than on previous Leaves' Eyes albums. Angel and the Ghost is a much more simple affair but the melodies are once again forced right to the front of the song. Krull's demonic vocals really make this song what it is, and it shows that his growls are just as key to the band's sound as Kristine's classical stylings. After a dramatic spoken word section from Kristine, we are treated to another guitar solo before the song's choir-backed chorus draws it to a strong close. Éléonore de Provence is another beautiful piece of music that Kristine transforms into something special with her angelic vocals. Again, Krull also has a prominent role in the song's delivery. I know that I keep talking about this, but I think that Symphonies of the Night is the album that he has sung on the most. I am glad that the band are finding more ways to integrate his growls into the music. Born's furious drumming during the chorus combined with Kristine's beautiful vocals are a contrast from heaven and it is one of the album's standout musical moments. The next highlight is the album's closing number Ophelia. Like Maid of Lorraine, it has that mini epic feel to it and is second only to Frøya's Theme from Njord in the band's best album closers list. The vocals are as powerful as we have come to expect and a Thin Lizzy-esque twin guitar section towards the end just gives the feeling of an excellent climax. It is a fitting end to what is overall a very consistent album. In my opinion, out of the five studio albums they have released so far, this album is my favourite of theirs. It has everything that you would want from a great symphonic metal album and the folk elements are done with true love and respect for the genre. Plus, the expansion of Krull's role as a vocalist and some more inventive guitar parts throughout the album just take the songs to the next level. This is definitely an album that I can recommend highly!

The album was released on 18th November 2013 via Napalm Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Hell to the Heavens.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Dead Daisies' 'The Dead Daisies' - Album Review

The Dead Daisies are a relatively new rock band centred around the songwriting partnership of frontman Jon Stevens (Noiseworks; INXS) and guitarist David Lowy (Red Phoenix; Mink). During their fairly short time together, depending on who is free at the time, various other musicians have toured with them to make up the numbers; but Steves and Lowy are the constant force behind the direction of the band. Their self-titled debut album was released last month and features songs that the duo have written together over the years. It is a back-to-basics hard rock album that mixes the soulfulness of Bad Company with the melodies of Foreigner to create a simple yet catchy album that is sure to interest many people. They decided to give the album away free with Classic Rock Magazine which, in my opinion, was a great marketing move. It is hard for new bands to get noticed, but now the entire readership of one of the UK's biggest rock magazines has had the chance to hear the album and I am sure that many of those will have stood up and taken notice. Due to the fact that the album only came in a small cardboard sleeve, the information I have about the album is limited. Apart from Stevens and Lowy, it is unclear which of their many touring partners actually played on this album. I would have liked to have known a little more about the musicians that featured on the album, but I understand that it is tricky to get lots of information on a small piece of card. As well as recently releasing their debut album, The Dead Daisies have also been on a pretty extensive tour of the UK as special guests to Black Star Riders which will have brought their music to more people. The current touring line-up of the band features guitarist Richard Fortus (Love Spit Love; The Psychedelic Furs, Guns N' Roses; Thin Lizzy), bassist Darryl Jones (The Rolling Stones), keyboardist Dizzy Reed (Guns N' Roses; Johnny Crash) and drummer Charley Drayton (The X-Pensive Winos; The Cult) - but, as I mentioned earlier, I am not sure whether or not these guys also played on the band's debut album.

The album gets off to a good start with It's Gonna Take Time which definitely has a big British rock 'n' roll vibe about it. Stevens has a very strong rock voice and sounds a little bit like a less gravely Paul Rogers. There is nothing fancy about this song, it just pairs a pretty reasonable riff with a nice, melodic chorus to good effect. Bands have been doing this for years, so why do anything different? The band's lead single Lock 'n' Load is up next and this is co-written by and features the guitar legend Slash (Guns N' Roses; Slash's Snakepit; Velvet Revolver) - which they do not keep quiet about, unsurprisingly. It is one of the album's best songs and has a massive chorus and lots of excellent lead guitar throughout. There is a lot of nice, understated keyboard work during this song that fills in all the gaps and really completes the song. Again, this is just simple rock music, but really enjoyable. Washington is a nice upbeat song that mixes acoustic and electric guitars in the into to create a really good groove. Short lead breaks and really retro keyboard sounds intertwine to really take the listener back to classic rock's 1970s heyday. Yeah Yeah Yeah has that early AOR vibe about it, when it was still very much firmly rooted in classic rock. I could imagine this appearing on one of Foreigner's very early albums with it's massive chorus and delicate slide guitar in places. This one is a real ear worm, and you will be singing the 'yeah yeah' bit for ages after hearing it! Yesterday is a piano-led ballad with a very slight bluesy overtones. Lowy's guitar work on this song is restrained but really emotive. Throughout this album his playing is very tasteful and the tone he gets out of his guitar is delicious. It is the piano however that is the main driving force of the song. Again, the sound is very rooted in the 1970s but it is all the better for it. Some might say that this is an album that is stuck in the past, but sometimes it is nice to hear something new that pays tribute so well to all the old favourites. There is nothing wrong with openly acknowledging your influences and having fun playing music that you love.

The next highlight is the very catchy Miles in Front of Me. It has easily the biggest chorus on the whole album and the staccato main riff is full of energy. It is not heavy by any stretch, but it is the most rocking that the album gets - you could headbang to it! The chorus is just so melodic that anyone who hears it is likely to get hooked. For me, it is definitely the best song on the album. If, in the future, the band carry on down this route then I will be very happy indeed! Bible Row is a good song even if it does not seem to quite fit in with the rest of the material. The verses are quite bluesy but the choruses have quite a Celtic-punk vibe similar to The Pogues. I like the way the song pays tribute to Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode in a few spots. This song has grown on me quite a lot since I first heard it, and now I really like it even if it is the black sheep of the album. After this song, the album's quality fades slightly. Tomorrow is very enjoyable however. It has a really nice chorus that is backed up by lots of big keyboards. The main riff is pretty unoriginal though and actually sounds like things they have used earlier on in the album. If I had a criticism of the album it would be that, Bible Row notwithstanding, lots of the songs are very similar. In the future, I hope that the band try a few new sounds so that they do not become too constrained by the limits of the genre. Can't Fight This Feeling is also pretty decent. It is a bit of a power ballad that would work well live with a crowd that was well versed in the material. There is a really nice slide guitar solo towards the end of the song and, again, the piano tends to drive it. The album comes to an end with Talk to Me which picks up the pace a little and ensures that the album ends on a rocking moment. There are some nice bluesy lead breaks throughout that, again, pay tribute to many excellent guitarists from the past. It's a solid end to what is mostly a very solid album. Overall, I have enjoyed listening to this album a fair bit over the past month. Seeing them live with Black Star Riders was also good and, hearing some of the even newer songs in their set, I do not think it will be too long before we see another album. If you like your 1970s rock, this is definitely something you should check out, but do not go into this expecting anything new or groundbreaking!

The album was released on 11th November 2013 via Spitfire Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Lock 'n' Load.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Stryper's 'No More Hell to Pay' - Album Review

For a cult band, Stryper have always done remarkably well. Their unique brand of 1980s hair metal with Christian lyrics was always going to alienate people, but they have always maintained a level of modest success throughout their career. The fact that I personally am not religious does not diminish my enjoyment of Stryper's music at all. For me, the tune comes first - before any message or cause - and Stryper have always had plenty of tunes. No More Hell to Pay is the band's seventh album of original material and the first since 2009's Murder by Pride. In between those two albums, the band have released a covers album and a compliation of re-recorded songs from the their past. It seems that looking back at the songs that made them popular in the first place has greatly influenced the songwriting on No More Hell to Pay and it certainly sees the band return to their classic sound found on 1985's Soldiers Under Command and 1986's To Hell With the Devil. It is also the first album to contain all four of the band's original members since 1990's Against the Law. Frontman, guitarist and main songwriter Michael Sweet also took on the production duties on this album and overall it sounds excellent. It has a slightly more stripped-back sound than some of the band's earlier works and focuses much more on the standard guitar, bass and drums set up rather than layering on tonnes of keyboards or over-processed backing vocals. However, all the hallmarks of the classic Stryper sound that we know and love are still present. Sweet's melodic vocals are as good as ever, and he still occasionally breaks into the odd high-pitched scream to great effect. The guitar riffs and solos from Sweet and Oz Fox are also strong. They have always been very respected musicians and were head and shoulders above every other hair metal band (apart from maybe Winger) on a technical level; and on this album they demonstrate that. What this album is not though is a throwback to the 1980s or a nostalgia trip. It sounds like Stryper, but a little more grown up and well produced. The most important feature of the album though are the songs. It might seem obvious to say, but you can have all the talent in the world but if the songs are not very good then you will not find success. Luckily, the songs on No More Hell to Pay are generally very enjoyable and Stryper fans will not be disappointed.

Revelation gets things off to a solid start with some nice lead guitar work from Sweet and Fox before it becomes a good mid-paced rocker with a decent chorus and enough guitar work to remain interesting. Despite the fact that Stryper have been going for 30 years now, Sweet's voice is still very strong and melodic. He has clearly looked after himself well over the years! The album's title track follows and, while it is similar to the previous song, it is still catchy. The main riff sees the two guitarists harmonising well and Sweet unleashes his screams at choice moments throughout. The chorus is pretty infectious and the first memorable solo of the album is delivered without too much fuss. The band also made a video for it which features them playing in the desert. Saved by Love picks up the pace somewhat and is much more 'metal' than the previous two songs. It races by and is extremely enjoyable. 1980s-style backing vocals do make an appearance here and sound fantastic - they just make the song sound so much bigger! Also, prehaps rather unsurprisingly, there is a pretty flashy guitar solo with lots of speedy runs. Their cover of The Art Reynold Singers' Jesus is Just Alright is slightly odd though. I have not heard any previous versions of this song before, but I must say that I not too keen on it. The lyrics are very repetitive and the song outstays it's welcome. There are some nice keyboard flourishes towards the middle of the song though that sound very retro and the main guitar solo is excellent. Overall, it is a little too gospel for me. The One is seriously good though! It is a hard song to describe but it definitely more of a ballad than anything else. The verses are driven by a nice fat bassline from Tim Gaines and some swirling guitars before this delicious chorus comes in where Sweet's vocals follow the guitar lead that introduced the song. I assure you that if you listen to this song, that particular melody will be swimming around your head for days. It is one of the album's best songs, and possibly one of the best in their entire catalogue. Legacy returns to the more traditional hard rock sound that the album started with. This is no bad thing though, and it is another solidy enjoyable song. Robert Sweet's drums sound particularly punchy here and his simple beat keeps up a good groove. The production on the drums throughout the album is pretty good, but they sound very powerful on this song.

However, there are some poorer songs on display and Marching into Battle is one of them unfortunately. It is another mid-paced song that plods along without ever having any real hooks. The workmanlike chorus is not as catchy as many of the other songs here and overall just sounds a little laboured. Luckily, this low point is short lived as Te Amo is much stronger. The song's main riff is pretty strong and is probably the most 1980s sounding song on the album both from a melody and production standpoint. The backing vocals could have come off one of their earlier albums and there are some weird phasing effects in the pre-choruses that sound a little dated, but still fun. The chorus is strong though, helped out by those cheesy backing vocals; and the guitar solo has a real sense of melody before really running away with some speedy arpeggios. Sticks & Stones continues on in a similar vein. Again, it has a really big chorus but the lyrics are a little cliché. It almost sounds like something that would be played in schools to try and get kids to ignore bullying..! That being said, it does have it's good points. As I have already said, the chorus is very catchy, but you might want to avoid singing it in public so that you do not get mistaken for some kind of new-age social worker. Water into Wine is another solidly enjoyable rock song. The Christian lyrics are very prevalent here so if that sort of thing bothers you then I would avoid listening to this song. Those willing to look past that though will find a decent song with enough melody to go around. Now, if The One was not the best song on the album then Sympathy most certainly is. It is the second song from the album to have a video made for it and, if this was in the 1980s, it would be getting played to death on MTV. It takes a little while to build up but when the chorus kicks in it grabs you hard and never lets go! It is just such a massive tune. I am glad that Sweet, after all these years, can still put it out the bag when it matters and give us a chorus like this one. Melodic rock at it's finest! Sadly, the album's final song Renewed is a little underwhelming and forgettable. It is another in the mid-paced plodding variety without too many hooks. It is not horrible though and does not take the sheen off some of the excellent songs that have come before it. Overall, this is a very solid album. It is certainly no classic, but I think the band achieved what they originally set out to do, which to was to create a good rock album and having a couple of real corkers in there certainly helps!

The album was released on 4th November 2013 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional vidoe for Sympathy.