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.

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