Monday, February 21, 2011

RECORD REVIEW: Stryper "The Covering"

The Covering
(Big 3 Records)

When John Lennon recorded Rock and Roll in 1975, releasing an album consisting entirely of remakes was still a relatively novel concept. But by putting his own artistic signature on  those songs he successfully paid homage to a dozen or so early rock and roll classics from the 1950s while creating  a record that sounded new — as if the songs were his own.

In 1978 Willie Nelson was equally successful with his multi-platinum-selling Stardust record which featured his unique interpretations of various timeless standards. And in 1990, Joan Jett's The Hit List was a fresh and snappy tribute to the music that inspired her, including tunes originally done by AC/DC, Nazareth, Jimi Hendrix and others.

In recent years, however, tribute records have become the norm  less of a creative, random and (typically) cool release and more of an obvious "last gasp" from artists whose "wells" have seemingly run dry. From adult contemporary icons like Barry Manilow and Rod Stewart to such '80s rock giants as Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Huey Lewis, Queensryche and Poison, it seems that everybody is now climbing aboard the cover tunes bandwagon.

But some of these recent offerings have actually jump-started a lagging career or two. Rod Stewart, for example, has arguably become more popular after running out of his own material with his über-successful Great American Songbook series, while from out of nowhere, former Steely Dan / Doobie Brothers vocalist Michael McDonald re-emerged to score TWO Top Ten albums in the last few years with his Motown tributes.

However, other artists' attempts to play the cover tunes "card" have met with less impressive results... Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Covering the newest release from Stryper!

In 1984 this southern California-based combo revolutionized the Christian music scene with their outrageous sky-high coifs, make-up, skin-tight leather stage outfits, screaming vocals and ear-splitting guitar riffs. Simply put, Stryper were God's answer to Mötley Crüe and they boldly paved the way for today's Christian hard rock kingpins.

They successfully broke down barriers between the secular and Christian music worlds  enjoying a string of sold-out concert tours and chart-busting albums, including 1985's Soldiers Under Command  the crowning jewel of the Stryper catalog. However, in 1991 the band fell victim to the changing musical climate and disappeared from rock's radar over night. A decade later they reunited to hit the road and begin writing the second chapter of the Stryper story. Refusing to move forward merely as a nostalgia act, the band has continued to release well-received new music in the 2000s, including Reborn (2005) and Murder by Pride (2009). So why move backward with a cover record now?

The first word that comes to my mind when describing The Covering is "pointless." The most successful (and compelling) cover tune records are often those where the artists venture beyond their established genre (i.e. Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart). For instance, had Stryper tackled tunes from the disco era I'd likely be delighted  running naked through the streets, filled with enthusiasm over this record. Picture it  outrageous arena rock versions of K.C. and the Sunshine BandVillage People and Bee Gees tunes  with frontman Michael Sweet adorning the cover, dressed in a John Travolta-type white suit, assuming the classic disco stance with his arm stretched out and finger pointing to the heavens  now THAT would be awesome! (or at least interesting) I could have also gotten really excited about an album full of Stryper-ized hymns, like their 1985 version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." That remake was incredible AND unique, PLUS it kept the band "on message." Instead, The Covering is merely a collection of predictable head banging re-treads.

On the upside, Stryper's version of The Sweet's "Set Me Free" rocks hard! The guys nail this one squarely on the head and it makes for a mighty introduction to the record. Other highlights include the 1976 Kansas hit, "Carry on Wayward Son" and Deep Purple's "Highway Star." The band also deserves kudos for recognizing UFO with a fantastic remake of "Lights Out." And although I may be alone on this one, I actually really like Stryper's version of Black Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell."

On the downside, Stryper frequently falls short throughout the record... Knock, knock! Who's there? It's Gene Simmons and he's come to give someone a thorough "tongue lashing" for bludgeoning the classic KISS anthem "Shout it Out Loud!"

Another "miss" is Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law." My teenage son plays drums in a band with his high school friends. They started out a year or two ago playing covers and "Breaking the Law" was their "Smoke on the Water." But when my son's buddies play "Breaking the Law" it's filled with pure and honest, heartfelt passion. By comparison, Stryper's version is at best, sterile.

Van Halen's "On Fire" is so weak that it has prompted David Lee Roth to quit the band  again! (Not really, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

And bringing up the rear on the list of the record's "stinkers" is Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." I'm not saying that this is a complete bastardizing of a true classic, however, one music industry insider recently commented to me that Stryper had effectively "destroyed the lives of Zep fans worldwide" with what he referred to as a "wretched" re-make.

The Covering closes with a new Stryper original entitled, "God." I recently heard an interview with Michael Sweet in which he touted the song as being Stryper's best. FYI  it's not.

The caliber of musicianship here is as top-notch as you'd expect from a Stryper record. After all, they are a supremely talented rock band.

As for the production, I don't recall Robert Sweet ever having such a ball-less drum sound. He remains one of rock's premier players and his sound on this record should have been as mighty as his talent. Well, at least he was allowed to actually play on this one!

The guitars are nice and crunchy, but everything is awash in a big wall of competing loudness  everything that is except the vocals, which are often a bit too out front. Gee, I wonder who produced this? Umm, let me check the liner notes  oh, I see.

In all seriousness, what has impressed and inspired me most about Stryper over the years is their commitment and dedication to spreading the "Good News" of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in 2011 Stryper has opted to veer off course and offer rock fans an empty "Twinkie" at a time when what is truly needed is a bold testimony. (insert "frowny face" here)

As a longtime Stryper fan, I hope their "well" has not in fact run dry. And I eagerly anticipate the possibility of getting "Soldiers II" the next time around.

-Christopher Long
(February 2011)



C'MON! -