More than a little ado has been made by historians laboring over exactly what to call the ten-year period between the years 2000 and 2009. Some have labeled it the two-thousands, while others refer to it as the twenty-hundreds. And those in the slightly hipper-than-thou crowd are likely to give it names like the noughties or double ohs. Regardless of the nomenclature used, one fact remains certain: the decade in question isn't likely to go down in history as the finest era for the men of Stryper. Indeed, after being labeled Christian metal pioneers during the second half of the '80s and beginning an extended hiatus in 1992, the band's first few efforts after reforming in 2003 found Sweet & Co., like many of their still-active MTV-era metal-loving counterparts, struggling to rediscover their identity in the post-millennial timeframe.
Things have changed as of late, though. To be sure, 2013's Second Coming, a collection of remade classic hits alongside a pair of newly-recorded tunes, served notice of the most convincing kind, that the foursome still had plenty of gas in the tank and artistic ground yet to cover. Even more remarkable was the truly stellar follow-on, No More Hell to Pay, an absolute tour de force that had critics and long-time fans alike drawing comparisons to the group's 1986 masterwork, To Hell with the Devil.
Needless to say, crafting a worthy successor to Hell to Pay constitutes anything but a simple undertaking. The good news, particularly for those most familiar with the band's comings and goings as of late, is that the new release, which was recorded live in October of 2013 at the Whisky A Go Go club in Los Angeles, seems very much up to the task. In a somewhat gutsy move, the quartet pushes their now-beloved back catalog aside and opens with not one, but two tracks from Hell to Pay. Just as they did on that album, "Legacy" and "Marching Into Battle" veritably jump from the speakers and grab the listener by the ears. The group then follows with what winds up being a roughly chronological run through some of their biggest hits ("Reach Out," "Free," "Always There for You") and deeper cuts ("You Know What to Do, "More Than a Man"), offering up a pair of songs from the 1984 debut, The Yellow and Black Attack, three from Soldiers Under Command (1985), five from To Hell with the Devil (1986), and one apiece from In God We Trust (1988) and Against the Law (1990).
The chronological rendering turns out to be a stroke of genius. Firstly, by placing the '80s tracks in time-based order, the listener is able to trace the evolution from the spirited, if slightly awkward, heavy metal textures of the first two efforts, to the increasingly pop-infused (and more fully fleshed-out) compositions that informed the latter '80s releases, and finally on through to the grittier, harder-rocking material the four-piece returned to at the dawn of the '90s. Just as importantly, by interspersing the occasional Hell to Pay cuts amongst the '80s and '90s numbers, one can see, first-hand, just how strong a creative force the Stryper troupe continues to be, here some three decades after first donning their trademark spandex suits, dousing themselves in Aqua Net and becoming virtually the only MTV-era Christian artists making regular rounds on the Hollywood Sunset Strip glam metal scene.
Michael Sweet doesn't go for the helium-voiced high-high notes like he used to, but this actually works in his favor, offering a clearer appreciation of his distinctive and emotive voice. And, truth be told, even as he approaches the almost unheard of 40-year mark in the rock and roll business, the powerhouse vocalist can still sing circles around most front men half his age. Likewise, where many a performer tends, understandably, to flag in the live setting as the song count grows, Gaines, Fox and the younger Sweet brother actually pick up steam as the proceedings continue. Indeed, the latter half of the album, if anything, is even more bracing than the first.
Those who have followed the band for any length of time realize that this isn't their only live outing to date. That said, compared to the 7 Weeks and Extended Versions releases, both of which were recorded during the 2003 comeback tour, Live at the Whisky features a slightly rawer sound and more intimate production aesthetic that give it the ever so slight nod over its two non-studio-based predecessors. Just as notably, more than a few comparisons have been made between the No More Hell to Pay and career-defining To Hell with the Devil albums. Here at last, though, with the tracks from both laid side by side, many a long-time devotee will be hard-pressed not to admit that the newer material may well actually be better than the now-revered '86 chestnuts.
In the metaphorical sense, if Second Coming was the sound of a group fast approaching the top of the mountain, and No More Hell to Pay was the sound of that same group planting a flag with their namesake at the pinnacle, then the latest undertaking serves as roaring declaration from the Stryper collective that its members have no intention of climbing back down to the bottom any time soon. At the end of the concert, as the last notes of "Soldiers Under Command" are dying away, Sweet jokingly remarks to those in the sold-out crowd, "We've got another thirty years in us if you do!" Listening to the sparkling, full-bodied release that he and his cohorts have just crafted, one can't help but think that he just may be right.- Review date: 9/23/14, written by Bert Gangl of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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