I have to be honest, this is the first record in a while where I’ve actually come into it with genuine expectations. The vast majority of albums I’ve covered this year have been by artists which I hadn’t listened to in the past and, of the others, none of them had really impressed me with their previous records enough to feel that I should heighten my expectations for their newer ones. Stryper, however, are a glorious exception: not only did I regard 2013’s No More Hell to Pay as one of my favorite records of the year (to my own surprise as well), but I also loved Sweet & Lynch’s record from the start of this year, so I knew from the start that Fallen was bound to be a good record.
Still, for those who are joining us late, I might as well explain who Stryper are. Well, to make a long story short, Stryper are a Christian glam metal band who nowadays lean more towards a heavy metal band (although Stryper had always had heavier elements to their sound: ‘The Way’, anyone?). Fallen is the band’s eighth full-length album (or eleventh, depending on whether you count their debut EP, cover album and re-recorded material album as full-length studio albums or prefer to count only albums of original studio material like I do) and it is following up a record that, to put it bluntly, was one of the biggest surprises to the metal scene of 2013.
So, no pressure then.
Do I think Fallen tops No More Hell to Pay? No…but I can’t say I was disappointed with this record either, because I still really enjoyed the record.
One of the things that I have to state from the start is that Stryper aren’t exactly subtle about their faith on this album (heck, the title of the opening track of the album is an alternative name for God. If that’s not being open about your faith, I don’t know what is!). While I personally have no problems with this (at the end of the day, lyrics are lyrics to me: it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s sourced from a holy book or from A Song of Ice & Fire, I’ll usually give it a free pass so long as it isn’t outright offensive or insulting), some people may have a problem with this. Mind you, considering Stryper have been around since the 80s, have been open about their faith from the start and have a logo which is a direct link towards a Bible scripture on it, I think it’s fair to say that, by this point, most people already know whether they can handle Stryper’s openly Christian lyrics or not.
The music is pretty much traditional heavy metal, but with a slight bit of old school hard rock to it that harkens back a bit to the band’s earlier influences. I actually found myself thinking that this is what Judas Priest’s Redeemer of Souls from last year should have sounded like (sans the Christian lyrics, obviously), as it felt very old school, but with strong songwriting that had a few nods to modern metal. Certainly, if one were to say that Stryper still fit the glam label to me now, I would have to ask whether they’d actually listened to this album, because I don’t hear any real glam influence on this record. It’s actually more like 80’s Judas Priest and Black Sabbath than the likes of, say, Vixen and Poison.
The songwriting on this record is honestly pretty impressive overall, as just about every song is excellent. It really says a lot that the only song I have to question having on the record is a cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘After Forever’, and even that is more because I don’t think it really offers much of interest to anyone outside of those who were wondering what Stryper covering Black Sabbath would sound like (a question which has actually already been answered: they did a cover of ‘Heaven and Hell’ for 2011’s The Covering) than because it’s a badly done cover (which it really isn’t). I know it sounds like a cop out to say that I can’t highlight any individual track as a highlight, but, for once, it’s because every single song is that good that I think picking songs to highlight would be to do the songs I don’t mention a great disservice. If I have to pick out one song, though, I will say that ‘Yahweh’ (co-written by Sevendust’s Clint Lowery) was a pleasant surprise for me, because I expected something a bit more akin to what Sevendust are known for when I read about his involvement (which had me slightly concerned, because Sevendust’s guitar work doesn’t sound a lot like what Stryper sound like, but I was still optimistic about it, as I loved their 2013 record Black Out the Sun), but the final result actually was a song with a main guitar riff that was slightly unconventional for Stryper, but still fit perfectly in their sound. Truly excellent work on all fronts!
On the performance front, I think everyone does great jobs. It’s really easy to shine the spotlight on Michael Sweet due to his impressive vocals (he can still hit notes that you’d think were beyond a man in his fifties) and strong guitar playing (he provides pretty good rhythm guitar and lead guitar playing across the whole album alongside Oz Fox), but, really, the only performance where I think one could be forgiven for saying was a bit underwhelming is Robert Sweet on drums, as his drumming tends to be somewhat simplistic. With that said, I should stress that I am not saying that his drumming is bad (he gets the job done just fine), just that you probably have heard far more impressive drumming elsewhere. Other than that, the performances are very solid for this style of metal. Nothing that is going to wow the prog crowd, but, by the standards of traditional heavy metal, it’s very solid.
The production is my only major source of complaint. While I get that a lot of hard rock and metal producers like to make their albums sound loud and thunderous because that’s how it works out in a live environment, it comes with the drawback of causing ear fatigue, which ironically means that the record becomes LESS enjoyable to listen to despite volume being what the genre relies on, and can also result in hearing degradation if you expose your ears to it too much. I’ve talked a lot about this trend in the past and am a very strong opponent of it (I already have bad eyesight problems as it is, I don’t need to add hearing problems onto my troubles!), so when I say that Michael Sweet’s production job is FAR too loud, I am not saying it just because it’s a bit louder than I would personally like: I’m saying it because the mastering for it actually is far louder than it has any right to be. Now, I will be fair, the record is not the worst mastering I’ve ever heard (I still haven’t forgiven Rick Rubin for his production job on Death Magnetic and whoever produced Arthemis’ We Fight is only not on my list of producers to avoid because I am too lazy to check who it was…hey, at least I’m being honest!) and, aside from the mastering complain, the only other issue I have is the limited bass presence (which is at least somewhat justified because the bass doesn’t really do a lot of interest on this record), but, if I gave ratings for records, I would have to dock a point off for the mastering just because I feel that it damages the record. Seriously, Michael Sweet, I love your work on this record, but please learn about responsible mastering between now and the next record, because you did this with No More Hell to Pay and Sweet & Lynch’s Only to Rise and the mastering is literally the only reason why I don’t listen to those records as much as I want to!
Overall, aside from the production complaint, I have to say that Fallen is a genuinely excellent heavy metal record. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that this is a record to be introduced to metal to, but, for pretty much any fan of traditional heavy metal and hard rock who isn’t put off by Christian lyrics in music, this record is pretty easy to recommend!
Fallen will be released on the 16th of October on Frontier Records. A promo copy of this album was provided for review purposes.