In 2014, ex-Dokken lead guitarist, George Lynch, and current Stryper front man, Michael Sweet, put their heads together to create Only to Rise, a twelve-song set that saw the light of day in January of the following year. On the surface, this sort of joint effort between two of the 1980s' most iconic hard rock artists could hardly be labeled as unusual; in fact, one might argue that the only truly surprising aspect of their association is the fact that it didn't happen sooner. But those who were aware of the underlying disparity in the men's belief systems -- Lynch is a self-professed atheist, while Sweet is one of Christian music's most recognizable entities -- knew just how significant their collaboration truly was. But while many a listener may have decided to give the album a token spin out of sheer curiosity, an equal number of them were likely astounded at just how successfully the parties involved were able to fashion a convincing and cohesive work by addressing their spiritual differences up front, finding a common lyrical ground upon which to stand, and then proceeding to rock mightily upon it.
Given the superb way in which Rise played out in practice, one would hardly fault Lynch and Sweet for merely serving up more of the same the second time around. And, at first blush, it would appear that they seem intent on taking over where the former record left off. Indeed, the opening cut, "Promised Land," begins and ends with Sweet's trademark powerful and piercing wail, while Lynch fills everything in between with a hefty slab of his characteristically blistering rhythm and lead runs. And the towering "Walk," with its chugging Black Crowes-esque groove (a la, say, "Hard to Handle"), swims more or less in the same lane during its opening minutes. From there, though, the track takes a distinct left turn, veering off into a bluesy breakdown and then an even more unexpected epic, almost Queen-like chorus. While nobody is likely to mistake this for a lost song from Yes or Rush, or even more contemporary artists like Dream Theatre or Theocracy, the superb cut is, nonetheless, the duo's most progressive-leaning offering to this point.
Perhaps an even more striking contrast to Rise is the manner in which, despite its bracing beginning, the better part of the sophomore project finds Sweet's vocals and Lynch's guitar work in far more subdued form. The pair bring things to a near crawl for the swampy, slightly dissonant, "Afterlife," which, despite its slower tempo and less histrionic nature, is every bit as gripping as the two cuts that proceeded it. The romantically-themed "Tried and True" makes its case in similarly discreet, and likewise winning, fashion. It is the title track, though, which typifies the album's less-is-more aesthetic most clearly, as Lynch sets down a subtle, simmering neo-psychedelic melody line and Sweet, rather than aiming for the stratosphere, lays back in the groove and lets the composition unfold organically, turning in one of his most sublime vocal performances in the process. These elements, combined with the song's impeccable attention to tune, show Lynch and Sweet to be, as much as they might try to deny it, pop craftsmen of the highest order.
For all of its many assets, the record's strongest selling point may well be the way in which the individual cuts themselves slot together to form such a unified musical statement. Indeed, one would only have to listen to the album on random play to realize just how crucial small things like the actual track running order truly are - which is yet one more testimony to the care and wisdom Sweet and Lynch have brought to bear upon their latest pairing. To be sure, it would appear that, if anything, the nearly three-year span between Only to Rise and Unified have only worked to strengthen and sharpen the two rockers' collective musical vision. Easily on par with any installment in either of the performers' back catalogs in terms of lyrical, instrumental, vocal or melodic content, Unified is a towering, cohesive and virtually filler-free case of outright musical synergy which goes a very long way toward proving the time-worn adage: old rockers never die, they just get better with age.
- Review date: 11/11/17, written by Bert Gangl of Jesusfreakhideout.com