Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Stryper's 'Fallen' - Album Review

In a time where bands promoted debauchery, drug-fuelled lifestyles, and promiscuity; California's Stryper took a different path. Influenced by their Christian faith, the band took the dominant hair metal sound of the 1980s, with the big hair and flamboyant stage shows to match, but sung about faith and love instead of the usual sex and partying. Stryper were a bit of an alternative to a scene fronted by the likes of Mötley Crüe and Poison, but at the same time they were just as vital to the 1980s hair metal scene as those bands. Stryper were the first overtly Christian metal band to gain mainstream recognition, as their second full length album, 1986's To Hell with the Devil, went platinum and was nominated for a Grammy Award. It remains one of the best-selling Christian metal albums to this day. The band could never really match the success of that album, and sales declined as the music became much more sugary and the general musical landscape changed. The band eventually split up in 1993, only to reunite ten years later for more tours and recording. Since 2010 however, Stryper once again contains all of the band's original members. Frontman, songwriter, and guitarist Michael Sweet is joined by his brother Robert on drums, Oz Fox on lead guitar, and Tim Gaines on bass guitar; which is the band that wrote and performed on those hugely successful early albums. 2013's No More Hell to Pay, the band's eighth full length studio album (which I reviewed here), was the first album to feature all four original Stryper members since 1990's heavier Against the Law. It was a more stripped back release, focusing on Michael Sweet's melodic rock riffs and soaring vocals. The layers of keyboards and backing vocals that were staples of the 1980s sound were much more in the background, going for simple rock power than an overproduced 1980s throwback. One thing was clear from hearing No More Hell to Pay was just how great Michael Sweet's voice still is. He has lost none of his power or range, and can still pull off the odd high-pitched scream when required. While I am no expert on the Stryper discography, I felt that it was one of their better albums and I listened to it a lot when it was released. Earlier this year saw the release of Fallen, the band's ninth album. In many respects this is a sequel to No More Hell to Pay, building on the style that made that album so good. It is a heavier record however, and lacks the variation that characterised the previous outing. While I do not believe this album is as good as Stryper's previous offering, I still think this is a strong release, and metal fans will enjoy the abundance of good riffs to be found.

Opening with the choral stylings of the epic Yahweh, co-written by Clint Lowery (Sevendust), Fallen gets off to a solid start. The song is classic modern Stryper, with a chugging guitar riff and some powerful vocals from Michael Sweet. Robert Sweet's booming, natural drum sound helps to propel the song forward, while plenty of dual-guitar lead breaks bring the classic heavy metal sound to a fore. Midway through, the song speeds up with an Iron Maiden-esque section that contains an epic shredding guitar solo that features the talents of both the band's guitarists. It is one of the album's most impressive songs, and the choral choruses stand out. The album's title track is a much more back-to-basics affair with a simple riff and striking vocal melodies. The choruses are a little more involved, with layers of big backing vocals as Michael Sweet harmonises with himself to create a very typical 1980s-sounding section that will delight fans of that era. It is quite a short song with not a lot of meat on the bones, but this works in it's favour. Pride is similar, with serious groove in the song's main riff and a simple chorus with Michael Sweet's higher vocals taking centre stage. In some respects, the two songs are actually almost the same, with very similar riffs and vocal effects in the chorus. This does not annoy me as much as it should, as both songs are enjoyable and they sound natural following one another. Big Screen Lies breaks away from the mold of the previous two numbers it's anthemic nature and the fact it slowly builds up over the course of the song. The chorus is a real foot-stomper, while elsewhere Robert Sweet uses his heavy-handed drumming style to build up to the song's chorus by going around the kit in various ways - before opting for a more traditional beat for the rest of the song. This is one of the songs that sticks out on first listen, and will probably become a live favourite because of how memorable it is. A Def Leppard-type guitar lead heralds the intro of rocker Heaven (not sure how Stryper managed to go eight albums without using this title..) that showcases Gaines' flowing bass playing during the sparse verses, which works in contrast to the hollow-sounding drums. Another strong chorus is present here, with that aforementioned backing up Michael Sweet's drawn-out vocal notes. The guitar solo here is very precise, foregoing the usual shredding for something slightly spacey and different. Love You Like I Do is a very riff-based song, and being co-written by Fox I am not surprised, but it fits in nicely with the sound established throughout the album. It is slightly throwaway however, with no real standout moments, and suffers from having to follow two of the album's strongest cuts. The chorus falls a little flat too, which never helps.

All Over Again is the album's first and only ballad, with a soaring guitar intro and delicate acoustic verses. Michael Sweet has always been great at singing ballads, and the softer side of his voice is as strong has his powerful screams. Stryper albums are usually backed full of ballads, so it seems strange to be just over halfway through the album and only hitting our first ballad. It is well placed through, and helps to pick things up again after the fairly average Love You Like I Do. It is an enjoyable song and, although not being the band's best ballad, works well to break up the pace somewhat. Next comes a storming cover of Black Sabbath's After Forever which I might actually prefer to the original. It has never been my favourite of the band's songs, but this version has been sped up somewhat, giving more bite to the song's main riff that the two guitarists nail, and just seems heavier overall. Stryper have done some good covers in their time, and this is another good addition to their canon. The religious nature of the song's lyrics also fit well within the band's modus operandi, which is probably one of the reasons it was chosen. Till I Get What I Need is short, sweet, and powerful. While the title makes it sound like another ballad, this is far from it and is a fast rock number with a great riff and some soaring chorus vocals. The is something about classic Judas Priest about the song's main riff and rhythms, and the guitar solos also have a real metal vibe about them. This is a song to blow the cobwebs away, and it packs a real punch. Let There be Light goes back to the chugging groove of the album's early numbers, but does not sound as fresh and interesting as those numbers. The song's chorus is also a little to similar to that from Yahweh too I think, with the choral effect again used and the way the pace slows to make it sound more epic and powerful. It is not a bad song, it just sounds too familiar. The Calling, another Fox co-write, is a vast improvement over Love You Like I Do. It is a real heads-down rocker, with some serious power and a riff to die for. In my opinion, this is the style that suits Stryper's the best these days, focusing on the harder metal edge to their sound and foregoing the sugary arrangements and production. The chorus here is really catchy and is likely to remain in your head for days after hearing it, and the song's guitar solo is easily the best on the album. Michael Sweet hits a seriously high note as the solo concludes too, which just adds to how good this tune is. The album's final song, King of Kings, is a bit of a mix of The Calling and Let There be Light with fast, rocking verses and a more epic, cinematic chorus. While not as good as the previous song, it works well as an album closer, as the epic nature of the song makes it stand out and feels like closure for the album. Overall, while not being as good as No More Hell to Pay in my mind, Fallen is another great effort from Stryper. While there is a bit of filler, there are enough enjoyable songs here to satisfy any melodic metal fan.

The album was released on 16th October 2015 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Pride.

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