Friday, April 14, 2017

LET THEM EAT METAL #13: Into the Metallic Ring of Rock ‘N’ Roll Hellfire! 02: Stryper vs Skillet

In the days of yore, when pop music meant something, it was filled with nourishing musical ideas and showed the tides of progress.  But then something happened, the ability for it to fill our soul has nearly vanished, and the masses are starved on good music.  There’s the occasional quality track that stays good after multiple spins, but it has gotten to the moment where even good pop music gets stale.  We live in a white-bread world in mainstream music.  However, there’s salvation from the drek that the masses need to know about.  In the words of Marie Antoinette, or more accurately The Rods quoting her: “LET THEM EAT METAL!”

Hello degenerates, heathens, weirdos, and deviants.  I am the Rock Otaku, and I’m here to show you worlds such as hard rock, metal, punk, alternative rock, movies, TV, anime, video games, and anything that makes us scream, shout, and let it out in the name of the Lord.

This series is dedicated to the best that heavy metal can offer.  As you will read, I will take you on a journey though the annals of heavy metal’s storied history from its beginning in early 70s, its crystallization in the late 70s and early 80s, its breakthrough into mainstream conscience in the early to mid-80s, its maturation in the late 80s and 90s, its dominance (sort of) in the 2000s and even today, and the rare moments that very few talk about unless in the company of like-minded fans.  Not in that order, but I’ll be looking at the footnotes of metal history in the order I desire.  In short, this series is about metal, plain and simple.

But why just stick with one album?  The world of heavy metal is vast, diverse, loaded with amazing talent and interesting movements.  I can’t catch up to it all if I stick with one album at a time.  It’d take eternity to review the amount of metal I’d review.  Or even share a spotlight with multiple artists at the same time.  This is where the Ring comes in.

The Metallic Ring of Rock ‘N’ Roll Hellfire is a battleground where rock bands, past, present, and future, prove themselves to see who the top of their class is.  This is where I will judge albums not by themselves, but compared to their competition.  There are many categories for this series, depending on the number of albums entering the ring.  The main four are best three opening tracks, best closer, best lyrics, and best music being the closing category, with others depending on the albums as well as how many to ensure a fair fight where every album gets a shot at points.

But before I reveal this week’s contenders, I have a question for the church goers, people of faith, and religiously inclined in my pitifully small readership: is heavy metal offensive to your beliefs?  While the reach of metal and hard rock today has gotten so big that even the church doesn’t mind it, there are still a few belief systems that I know about or consider that’d still protest a Cannibal Corpse show, a Mayhem show, a Napalm Death show, and even a Black Veil Brides show.  When you get right down to it, metal is inherently a dark genre of music, both audibly and visually.  The concept of sunshine and rainbows in the genre is always shunned upon by a very vocal (if not stupid) group that demands everything darker, heavier, angrier, and more evil, to the point where some bands push the word of the Prince of Darkness.
No, not that prince of darkness.
And there’s a sense of fun, discovery, and allure of taking a ride on the dark side of life every once in a while.  There are some normal-looking and behaving people who want to escape normality every once in a while by reading, watching, listening, and/or experiencing to something that would be considered in their sphere to be dark, twisted, or evil.  It’s a way of letting go of your anger, rage, and darker thoughts and can lead to a state of balance.  It’s probably a reason why some of the most popular things to come from Japan and in Japan can be considered metal, because they are flights of fantasy, sc-fi, horror, and ecchi that appeal to a population laced with tradition but pursuing spiritual balance, a way to break away from the stress of school or even the workplace.  And that’s also why I’m such a massive geek, because I deal with stress on a daily basis and need something to vent it out, sometimes sooner than later.

But what about metal bands and artists that are spiritually inclined.  Those that love the sound and fury but are uncomfortable with the unintentional Beelzebub promoting.  There are many metal and hard rock acts whose members are of the Christian faith and are devout, but are open-minded enough to interact with Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, rival Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Satanists, Lovecraftians, Jedi, and Trekkies (once that becomes a religion).  Heck, there’s a necessity of open-mindedness to appreciate heavy metal and hard rock in general.  But sometimes, you find enough material in the Bible instead of the works of Tolkien, Lovecraft, King, Hemmingway, and other famous genre writers to write songs about, but it’s not the messed-up Old Testament.  It’s the more comforting New Testament, and you want to spread that message of kindness, charity, and worship.  That’s where Christian metal comes in.

So what are my thoughts on Christian metal?  It’s alright by my book.  First is batting average, there are a bunch of hits, a bunch of misses, and times where a good melody is set to very preachy material.  Yes, I’m the kind of guy that likes his metal black, but I do put cream and sugar in it most of the time, and isn’t half bad.  The issue with Christian metal depends on the band and artist and if they hammer their messages into our heads.  But that’s an issue with most Christian rock anyway, and of course when I listen to the genre, I aim for the heavier side of the spectrum due to the tendencies to sound less like Protestant, super-preachy, ultra-conservative, Trump-apologist, lame duck sissies and have more of a fiery, passionate, slightly more open and Catholic tone to them (even if most of them are Protestant).  And even then, there are some bands in the genre (initially) vilified for their sound despite having a more positive, faith-friendly message.  But enough with the ranting, let’s discuss two major bands in the genre that attained mainstream attention in two eras of rock, 80s glam metal and 00s butt rock, and still have massive followings and devout (no shame here) fanbases.

Yes, while I have covered what was once mainstream metal/rock in the past, its origins, and even a Japanese kawaii take on it, I am discussing the former as well as the genre that is the epitome of mainstream radio rock: post-grunge.  Also known as butt rock due to its sludgy guitars, attempts at emulating Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley in the vocal department, and (in the second and third waves) overuse of clichés from glam metal, crunk, country, and contemporary Christian music in the lyrical department, the genre, which is also called flyover rock on the softer and more mainstream-friendly side, is derided for being safe, bland, generic, meat and potatoes rock without any spices like shred solos (which tend to be meh on that front), falsetto singing, and a dash of LGBT-friendliness.  This is a genre for backwards-ass rednecks and the red-state equivalents to SJWs, who don’t like to be offended by anything “new.”  In short, think of the fanbase including the drive-in owners in Alabama that refuses to show a PG-rated movie over a supposed “gay scene” that’s so short that I called it a “gay shot,” or a brief piece of footage between cuts when the “offensive” stuff happened (I’m still a little peeved that Bill Condon and Disney blue-balled me there, I can recommend the feature to conservatives as a result you damn blabbermouths!).  And I’m comparing one of the many Christian-tinged acts in this genre, to the point where they’re part of the Christian rock scene in America, to THE Christian hair metal band.  Now for the introductions.

From Orange County, California, this band of bards preach the name of the lord and his good works while shredding your face off.  Inspired by the music of Judas Priest and Van Halen, but also devout to the words of Jesus, they take the wild, intense, and heavy sound of heavy metal and take it to church.  Their attitude is righteous in the name of Jehovah, their sound has the power of a church organ at full blast, their melodies are divine, and their hooks can even convert heretics to the word of God.  They are:
The Yellow and Black Attack come to LTEM’s Metallic Ring of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hellfire with their breakthrough album, easily one of the bestselling Christian rock albums of all time:
No words have been spoken so lightly.  And plus, this cover is better than the retail version.
After two other albums, The Yellow and Black Attack and Soldiers Under Command, this band of devout, flamboyant bards put out an album whose message will serve as their motto.  A rejection of positivity in supporting Satan and promotion of the righteous.  And with their monster anthems and girly ballads, they put Christian metal on the map and made it a big deal in the world of heavy metal in general.  As for me, expect some praises for their devout take on 80s melodic metal, a breed that apparently Razorfist thinks is an influence on power metal.
Yes, the same Arizona-based epitome of elitist metalheads thinks Stryper is a part of the story of power metal.  That reaction is earned.
Now for the next challenger

From Memphis, Tennessee, this family-based band of followers of the good book have entered the rock scene to preach the good will of God.  At the same time, their music and lyrics evoke feelings of disaster and woe brought on us by dark times and influences, and with Jesus, we’d be saved.  But don’t let their appearance and sound fool you, their music hits hard, fast, and with enough symphonic elements to become a catalyst for many AMVs.  With hard-hitting anthems of righteousness and soft ballads of faith, they are:
Bringing another style of music to LTEM though submitting their work to the Metallic Ring of Rock ‘n’ Roll Hellfire (though it was just me who chose it out on a limb) is this band of modern hard rockers who sing of the right path with their modern breakthrough album after many years:
There is a reason for this, hear me out.
While one may question the reasons for having Skillet fight Stryper in the Pit, the other question should be: why not P.O.D.?  The reason?  Because I’m not sure if it would be a fair fight between Stryper and P.O.D. with the latter’s legacy on modern Christian rock.  That and both bands entering today are a Christian makeover to at-the-time mainstream trends in rock and metal when they released their albums, with Stryper’s glam sound and appearance and Skillet’s post-grunge/alternative metal leanings.  That and dancing around nu metal for a while is my goal for this series (you don’t want my commentary on simplistic, thuggish, emo, whiny, and idiotic music unless you want me to suffer).

Now for the categories.  Obviously are best three opening tracks, best closing track, best lyrics, and best music in that order.  But between the opening and closing tracks are the best anthems, best ballads, best singles, and best deep cuts in that order.  Then for the second-to-last category so there can be an even number of categories and no possibility of a tie, I will have, because best music will always be the last category, best Christian message, which means that I will judge how well presented any pro-Christian messages are in both albums, whether they’re not obnoxious, overt, or obvious (as in, a super-Atheist like Crash Thompson needs to be able to take something positive out of it and possibly have a viewpoint of “better than meh” for it to win).

So let’s rock in the name of God:

Best Three Opening Tracks:

For this category, I was considering cheating with Stryper because the first three anthems after the moody intro track are so awesome, but to give Skillet a challenge, I felt that I really should take this category literally.  So “Abyss (To Hell With The Devil),” “To Hell With The Devil,” and “Calling On You” (gee, I wonder what the last one is about?  There are only two options there) from the California hair band will take on “Hero,” “Monster,” and “Don’t Wake Me” from the Tennessee flyover rock stars.  And plus, if I did bring in “Free,” then “Awake and Alive” would have been a part of this fight, and for my one or two Japanese followers, having four tracks would be both overkill and a bad omen.  So those two tracks will have the anthems and singles to bring their A-game.  For this, let’s get to the individual artists here.

For Stryper, when you hear the words “Christian metal” you’d expect heavy metal in FAVOR of the Church rather than having a morbid curiosity in the stuff mainstream Christian media likes to gloss over.  That and “Christian metal” sounds like something along the lines of Nickelback at their heaviest (expect more burns).  But “Abyss (To Hell With The Devil)” really doesn’t sound uplifting.  At all.  In reality, it’s dark, ominous, brooding, and very, very gothic in its execution, with only keyboards, organs, and sound effects creating this sort of hellish musical landscape.  Then the song segues into the album’s title track, which is as dark, brooding, and gothic as the preceding opener, but with the ominous terror replaced with fist-pumping fury, giving good old Beelzebub the bird ala. Star Lord.  And with this declaration of war on Lucifer, the band goes for a mid-tempo, headbanger friendly, commercial metal anthem that includes razor-sharp guitar riffs, thick bass, steady drums to give off a marching beat on the path to beat Satan’s ass further into his fiery prison.  Matching that fury is Michael Sweet’s angelic vocals, loaded with metal screams (he sure can scream).  And the guitar licks and solo are a testament to Michael’s and Oz Fox’s guitar wizardry.  But beyond any signs of witchcraft.  You get into the next track, “Calling On You,” which feels like a sort of, “Hey, we need an uplifting Christian song praising Jesus after our hard-hitting anti-Devil song.  Any ideas?” from Michael, than either Robert Sweet or Oz said “I had this song about how a Japanese girl that’s a little above the age of consent in Georgia makes me all warm and fuzzy, does that help?” which Michael replies “Let me change the girl to Jesus and we have a song, guys.  Thanks, (insert Robert or Oz based on your perspective).”  And we get this mid-tempo song with more razor-sharp guitars, thick bass, pounding and steady drums, soaring vocals, and with more heavenly guitar licks and solos, but I do feel that the last tracks guitar moments were better.  And as if this song felt like a slight downgrade from the previous track in metallic bite, it has the same tempo and drum beat, as if they wanted to sell this drum beat to the faithful who weren’t sold on the “screw the Prince of Darkness” mentality of the previous track.  Weird, but not bad as the three songs do feel like two due to “Abyss” and its relationship with the following track.  Can Skillet top it?

Surprisingly, due to the first two, there’s a shot they could have.  With “Hero,” you get an initial blitzkrieg of guitars, bass, drums, and electronics before the vocals come in with John Cooper bellowing about the injustices of the world while Jen Ledger provides various lines to match with the singer/bassist.  And throughout, the song stays at your traditional post-grunge beat of fast enough to be rock and tap-friendly enough for mainstream radio play, with the instrumentation being at one intensity during the verses and building up to a very loud, in-your-face chorus that’ll have you chanting along.  That and the vocal interplay used here is distinctive enough to give it an identity in the snarling, yarling post-grunge scene.  Too bad there’s no guitar solo.  But the next song, “Monster,” is stadium-made, with its driving beat, heavy riffs, pounding rhythm section, and scorching vocals about feeling like a demon resides in you.  If there’s one issue with it, it sound’s way too much like Three Days Grace’s seminal rocker, “Animal I Have Become” and relies on the same themes.  If it wasn’t for that, it could have easily been considered a rock classic rather than a cheap, Christian-themed knock-off.  For “Don’t Wake Me,” the band slows things to a crawl and decided to go for the ballad.  After two hard-hitting rockers, you’d expect a raging animal in a cage with a Christian message, but this song is a precursor to the album’s major flaw: the overuse of ballads on this album.  And they’re “butt rock” ballads with Christian themes, so the sting of white, safe, blandness really starts to strike the wrong nerves in most audiences.  And plus, it really is an issue when the song is about as dangerous and in-your-face as a hamster and you want to sell your band as hardcore Christian metal.  And that’s why I said they could have had a shot at winning our hearts.  Instead, they waste it.

So, with both albums having two big anthems to start, it’s clear that there’s some kind of a draw.  However, while ripping off another song can be an issue most of the time, ripping off yourself if you have the ability to make it distinctive will be better than ripping off another song and not bringing anything substantial to the table.  That and not having the third track on your album to be a bland, boring ballad.  Point goes to Stryper.

Stryper: 1
Skillet: 0

But what about the rest of the anthems on both albums.  How do they bring us closer to God?  And no, not in the way you’re thinking, Trent Reznor fans.

Best Anthems:

For Stryper, the last two songs I’ve mentioned, “Free,” “The Way,” “Sing-Along Song,” “Holding On,” “Rockin’ The World,” and “More Than A Man” will be counted for this category, so we have 8 anthems to choose from.  And to make it fair for the competition, I’ll be judging the average score I give each on a 1-5 scale.  And currently, “To Hell With The Devil” and “Calling On You” rate at a 5 and a 4 for me, respectively.  So how does “Free” continue the charge?  Well, it’s the same drum beat again, so there’s that, but at least the opening lick is melodically powerful.  And the song is more about having the choice whether you want to go on the righteous path or not deny the forces of evil.  While, obviously, it’s more about having the freedom to choose the path of Christ, I do get the sense that most secular-minded, non-religious listeners will be able to get something out of it.  But for those with an appreciation for the supposed grandeur of church choirs, the end of the song, after the main guitar solo, is fantastic.  After “Honestly,” which I’ll get to in the next category, is “The Way,” a song that has more in common with speed metal than the last three anthems mentioned, and it shreds hard with a great hook.  Before I get to “Sing-Along Song,” let me say that “Holding On” is practically “Calling on You” with lamer lyrics, and the continued sense that this was written about a girl before it was edited to be about Christ.  “Rockin’ The World” is a massive improvement, with a loud, stadium-friendly hook and some wild guitar work.  But after that, and a dip into enough sugar to cause brief gender-bending in men, we get “More Than A Man,” probably the album’s biggest argument for Razorfist’s point about them and their contributions to power metal, as it’s more of a power-metalish song (definitely on the light European/Japanese side of power metal, though), and it’s epic sound, licks, riffs, rhythms, hooks, and solo.  And that’s how the album ends.  But before Skillet can fight, my scores for the song’s I’ve talked about in this paragraph are, respectively, 5, 5, 3, 5, and 5, adding to the previous scores for the songs I’ve mentioned.

Now for Skillet, we have the first two songs reviewed, “Awake and Alive,” “It’s Not Me It’s You,” and “Sometimes.”  The reason, everything else to my ears is a ballad.  So for that, it’s extremely apparent that I’m working with three songs here, with the grades for the two I’ve already discussed to be a 4 and a 3 respectively.  But if there’s an anthem that screams spiritually uplifting anthem, it’s “Awake and Alive.”  With its modern rock elements being only an issue for nitpicking, it’s a very passionate, driving, heart-pounding song that will get you screaming the chorus, and the vocal interplay between John and Jen is among the best on the album here.  Plus you have stellar guitar work from rhythm guitarist (and John’s wife) Korey Cooper and lead guitarist Ben Kasica (who’d later leave the band) anchored by excellent keyboard and string arrangements, thick bass, and pounding drums, the latter two from the singers.  And that song has a great guitar solo.  But then you get “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” which is probably one of the whitest songs that played on rock radio I’ve heard, and the worst part is that it’s so emo about it.  It’s as if the song is trying to appeal to the emo crowd and people who feel that songs about having bad relationships relate to them.  And it’s a surprisingly dull song.  “Sometimes” feels like a weird name for a song, because it proves that sometimes, this band is capable of creating a killer anthem that doesn’t even get released as a single.  However, it’s still a generic post-grunge anthem that’s about being a jerk and admitting that.  But where it feels great is in its placement on the album, feeling like an oasis in a desert of contemporary Christian ballads.  On its own, the song is okay, with okay guitars that include okay riffs and an okay solo, okay bass, and okay drum work.  As a result, the rest of the songs score at 5, 2, and 3 respectively.  Ouch!  Especially considering what Stryper did.
They made a legitimate song with the title of “Sing-Along Song,” and that requires effort and guts.  What do I mean, the song is a basic, low to mid-tempo, stadium rocker with sharp guitar riffs, pounding bass and drums, and epic feel, and Michael Sweet dialing up the catchy epicness to 11.  And yes, the chorus is just “Whoa” repeated over and over with “along” following it, but it’s a surprisingly intense, mesmerizing, and catchy song that’s, let’s face it, dedicated to God.  And while it doesn’t have a shredding solo, the one it does have matches with the simple, straightforward tone of the rest of the song.  It’s just a simple song played larger than life, and it’s somehow interesting throughout the entire 4-minute runtime.  A definite 5 for effort. 

So with that, based on 8 anthems, the average score for Stryper is 4.6 while Skillet has an average score (based on 5 songs) of 3.4.  So yes, Stryper is the winner for best anthems.  They rocked harder, had more meat, had more muscle, and are more melodically interesting.  And this can be attributed to something I’ll bring up at the end regarding their place in 80s metal versus Skillet’s place in late-00s modern rock.

Stryper: 2

Skillet: 0

But a commercial, Christian-tinged metal album can’t all be anthems.  You need sappy songs for CC (Contemporary Christian) stations for promotional reasons.  So which ones are the most tolerable.

Best Ballads:

Here, Stryper come in with two tracks, while Skillet have a staggering seven.  SEVEN BALLADS ON AN ALBUM!  How does that affect that album’s heaviness?

First with Stryper, the two ballads are “Honestly” and “All of Me.”  If there was a Nostalgia Critic-esque show dedicated to 80s hair metal, then there’s a shot that the first track will be mercilessly mocked.  Why?  Because it’s probably one of the sappiest things to come from the hair metal scene, and compared to its spiritual frat-boy child, it’s Cheetos-level dangerously cheesy.  How?  Let’s dive in.  The song is practically a love letter to either a girl Michael Sweet likes or Jesus himself.  And it’s driven by keyboards rather than guitars, the ultimate sign of 80s cheese that screams soft, sensitive, and sappy versus loud, dangerous, and manly.  And as a result, it sounds cheap, manufactured, and commercial, i.e. lame.  And that’s not to say that it can’t be great (there are many great keyboard-driven songs I’ve heard), but that, in this case, it’s pretty lame, and the fact that Michael sings like a girl here doesn’t help.  At least the chorus is punched up by guitars, bass, and drums.  However, “All of Me” has all the same problems as the last track, but it’s somehow even worse.  And there’s no guitar, bass, and drums to salvage that wreck.  So the scores here are 2 and 1, respectively.

As for Skillet, EVERY OTHER SONG IS A BALLAD!  So that means the song I’ve already mentioned, “Don’t Wake Me” to be exact, “One Day Too Late,” “Should’ve When You Could’ve,” “Believe,” “Forgiven,” “Never Surrender,” and “Lucy” will be analyzed here individually.  And here, the first song’s analysis was above, and I gave it some heat, giving it the equivalent to a 2.  For “One Day Too Late,” it’s a slow, brooding ballad dealing with themes of faith or something with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus.  “Should’ve When You Could’ve” is also a slow, brooding ballad dealing with themes of faith or something with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus.  “Believe” has the same structure, being a slow, brooding ballad dealing with themes of faith or something with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus.  “Forgiven” may have some pianos at the beginning, but it’s a slow, brooding ballad dealing with themes of faith or something with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus.  Despite its badass title, “Never Surrender” is a slow, brooding ballad dealing with themes of faith or something with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus.  And “Lucy” is… wait a sec, it deals with the aftermath of an abortion on a couple?  It’s still a slow, brooding ballad with basic guitars, bass and drums with an explosive chorus, but Holy Moses is this a relatable song.  It’s not something nice, but it’s at least about a relevant issue, especially in the Christian world being overtaken by agnostic liberalism, something I have some stake in somewhat.  But this falls definitely in the pro-life camp, as it deals with trying to move on after doing the deed.  Scientifically, there’s nothing wrong with an abortion as long as it’s done in a certain time frame, but there’s also nothing wrong with crying over it, especially if the likely child might have shined a light on the family.  It’s a tough decision to do so, and there are consequences either way, may they be spiritually, personally, or fiscally.  And this is coming from someone who views himself as pro-choice.  It’s nothing special in practice, but the chosen key is a relief from the other ballads, and it’s an okay song.  In general, the scores here would count, for the songs reviewed, as 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, and 3 for “Lucy” to have the balls it did.  If it wasn’t for the saddest song here, this could have tied with Stryper due to how boring the ballads got to insufferability.

As a result, due to the legendary awfulness, and ultimate guilty-pleasure possibility, of “Honestly” and me feeling that “Lucy” is underrated, Skillet get the point with an average of 1.71 versus Stryper’s 1.5.

Stryper: 2

Skillet: 1

And while the album is worth more than a single song, sometimes these singles can gauge our interest.  Which songs sold the album better to both Christian and non-secular audiences?

Best Singles:

So for Stryper, the songs they bring to the table are “Free” and “Honestly” with “Calling On You” only brought in if I feel that they need this part.  Skillet will have “Hero,” “Monster,” “Awake and Alive,” “Forgiven,” “Lucy,” “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” and “One Day Too Late.”  And for this, it will be judged on an average scale for the obtaining of the overall score.

For Stryper, they can easily have this in the bag in two ways:  One, the fact that the ballads by Skillet, while mediocre, may actually be better as single songs rather than part of an album.  Two, the inclusion of “Calling On You” pushing the scale towards the God-praising hair band.  But as I’ve mentioned, “Free” is such a great track in my opinion and is one of those examples of Christian metal where I can ignore the overt religious themes and focus on the more universal ideas of the song, such as having the choice to do good.  As a guy that values choice over destiny, I can heavily relate to the song’s message and its chorus, going “Free/Free to do what you want to/Choose your own destiny/Free to do what you want to.”  And both the first take on it and the more choral take after the key change are equally effective.  And this is some of Michael Sweet’s manliest singing on the album, even with the choir.  That and the solo, when you hear it, is musical ecstasy.  And you also get the song bookended by the same guitar lick, which is a great lick in both keys it’s played in on the song.  But if there’s a reason why Skillet could take the prize here, it’s because of “Honestly.”  It’s a crappy song and a painfully-sappy ballad, all at the same time, and it’s so bland and unoriginal that it hurts the band’s overall credibility.  A 5 and a 2 for them.

As for Skillet, their singles go like this.  “It’s Not Me, It’s You” is the weakest anthem single, due to it being a blatantly generic, very immature track.  Despite its strengths as a stadium and sport-friendly Christian hard rocker, “Monster” is still a blatant “Animal I Have Become” knockoff.  “Hero” is a great way to have started the string of singles as well as the album, but the lack of a guitar solo keeps it from perfection.  Said perfection is “Awake and Alive.”  And for the ballads, you can say that they improve in quality with distance from the anthem.  While I may have considered “Forgiven” a 1 on the album, on its own, it’s a generic, cookie-cutter ballad that somehow is slightly improved by a piano intro at the beginning.  While pianos in ballads won’t save them, there are moments where, like with most of X Japan’s ballads, it is essential, and it works a little here.  It doesn’t make the song more enjoyable to me, but it does help with the sentiment.  For “One Day Too Late,” it isn’t a great ballad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s rather interesting on its own, as it’s more about John Cooper’s family life and how it affected his time to do other things.  It isn’t a great sentiment, but it’s nice to know that he’s trying to make them happy.  And “Lucy” is a surprisingly great ballad on its own, despite any possibly uncomfortable undertones.  Overall, they did a good job in what songs to pick.  For the singles in release order, the scores are 4, 3, 5, 2, 3, 2, and 3.  And yes, the scores did suddenly increase thanks to extra thoughts on them.

For this as a result, Stryper have a average score of 3.5, with Skillet bieing at 3.14.  Yes, ultimately Stryper had a better sense of quality singles than Skillet, even worse when you realize what else could have been considered.  So Stryper get the point.

Stryper: 3

Skillet: 1

But what about beyond the singles?

Best Deep Cuts:
As I’ve mentioned, Stryper only released two technical singles, both of them having equally strong b-sides (if not stronger in some cases) while Skillet, due to having 7 singles, have 5 tracks that will provide their score here.

In the case of Stryper, let’s start with “Calling on You” and “Sing-Along Song,” as they were B-Sides to “Free” and “Honestly.”  In the former’s case, it’s weird since it got a music video that got play on MTV, but I can see the band going with “Free” as the big track.  Specifically, it’s a good track that follows a massive issue (or a great joke) with Christian rock, one that has been mocked on South Park at some point.  Specifically, the whole idea that Christian artists, at their laziest, take songs about a girl they like and change the subject of affection to God or Jesus, with changes to the innuendos to make it family friendly.  And this song does feel like that, as in if you didn’t tell me this is about his relationship with God or Jesus, you’d assume that this is a tame dedication of love to a girl he likes.  And to a certain degree, it makes sense considering what everyone else in the glam genre were doing, making this a song of virtue disguised as a song of vice.  And I did mention that the guitars are great and the instrumentation is awesome as well, with credit to the guitarists for the great solo.  But arguably the biggest gamble, and the most surprising track, is “Sing-Along Song,” with a surprisingly heavy, marching feel that makes it closer to a war anthem than Radio Disney fluff.  With its heavy guitars, pounding drums, thick bass, marching groove, and soaring vocals, choir included, this is a song, despite its blatant Christian themes, to take with you on a dungeon quest in an RPG and inspire your party to victory.  And also despite the chorus being “whoa” being overextended and overused than in a Keanu Reeves movie, this is still an epic track.  For the rest, “Abyss” and “To Hell With The Devil” are a two-way epic of epic epicness with the former’s eerie synths and organs and the latter’s pounding heavy metal glory.  “The Way” is the first of the albums surprisingly stellar speed metal forays, with “Rockin’ The World” and “More Than a Man” proving the band’s heavy metal credentials in being catchy, fast, heavy, and epic as well.  “Holding On” is a bit of a dud, but it’s still a rocking track with strong musical elements despite being another mid-tempo rocker about how Michael loves Jesus.  And where “Honestly” sucked, “All of Me” is worse, as the lack of heavy metal instrumentation puts this squarely in the crappy Christian Adult Contemporary fluff that plagues the Christian music scene with its lack of edge or guts.  Overall, scores, in track order for the songs mentioned, are 5, 5, 4, 5, 5, 3, 5, 1, and 5.

Skillet are more of a mixed bag on album cuts, as the tracks they released as singles make sense as singles.  You can easily make the claim that these songs are pure filler rather than essential tracks, and since most of them are ballads, that claim is even more justifiable.  “Don’t Wake Me,” as I’ve mentioned, is not a good way to kickstart an anthem-laden album dedicated to the lord and worshiping him.  It’s a painfully mediocre ballad musically, and the lyrics don’t feel very essential.  “Then “Should’ve When You Could’ve” feels very painfully thin, definitely pushing the filler angle and coming across as white noise when I listened to it.  And despite some elements of drive, “Believe” is a significantly boring track that somehow equates Jesus and/or God with a chick and angsting about how much of a bad idea it was to cut ties with him/her.  Even if it had a guitar solo, which it does, it’s still a bland track.  Even worse is “Never Surrender,” which fails on principle rather than execution.  Not to say that being a ballad hurt it, but having a ballad that’s a generic ballad with a title for an anthem, it really feels like the band is trying to blue-ball me into giving a dud a shot.  Even if the song is mediocre in execution and practice, I still don’t like being fooled into thinking that a possibly-amazing track is hampered by modern rock clichés.  I’d stick with other songs of the same name from the 80s, they knew how to sell that ideology.  At least “Sometimes” had some punch, and being an anthem in a sea of dull ballads is a great way for me to forgive the sense that it’s just okay.  Overall, the scores in order of song listing would be 2, 2, 2, 3, and 1.

So the averages for both bands would be counted as 4.22 and 2 for Stryper and Skillet, respectively.  Not surprisingly, considering the route of the songs themselves and how the genres they’re a part of define what kind of sounds they have.  And I’m starting to get the sense that Skillet’s album is proper material for a Regretting the Past episode from Rocked.  Point goes to Stryper.

Stryper: 4

Skillet: 1

But can either album end with a bang or a whimper?  Was God on their sides to the very end?

Best Closing Track:

Based on previous words of mine, the winner here is pretty much Stryper.  I’ll assign them the point after I explain why.

As far as musically, this song is an absolute headbanger.  If there was a secret weapon to hair metal that put it squarely in the heavy metal camp of the 80s, even when it incorporated elements of punk, blues, and pop, it’s that the musicians were capable of playing as fast, and sometimes faster, than their 70s metal, hard rock, arena rock, progressive rock, punk rock, and NWOBHM predecessors and their thrash, power, progressive, speed, and neo-classical metal contemporaries.  And Stryper is not an exception here, playing this song at breakneck speeds that would be seen in speed and power metal, with the melodicism of what would come from Stratovarius and Sonata Arctica.  And that’s simply from the opening, both the slower, more melodic first few seconds and when the drums enter the proper tempo for this, and the song continues to be like that.  And for this song, Michael sings about Jesus came to Earth to save us, and having him in our hearts will save us.  It’s silly, but the mix of the wild instrumentation and the epic tone that’s usually reserved for songs of war manage to sell this idea.  Even if you don’t follow the gospel, this musical drive is nothing short of inspiring.  That and there’s a great guitar solo after the bridge that showcases the technical ability, melodicism, and feel of Michael Sweet and Oz Fox, being one of the best solos on the album.  And if you’re a hardcore Christian or someone who sometimes practices religion, the chorus is still catchy regardless.  Plus, it does feel like that it’s the ultimate moment where Stryper had to sell the idea of a commercial Christian heavy metal album to the masses, and this is how they ended.  Outright divine.

But that doesn’t mean Skillet’s closing track on their album is awful.  Like “More Than a Man,” “Lucy” follows what is arguably the worst track on the album, which, like in Stryper’s case, is a bad ballad.  But unlike Stryper, instead of putting effort into rocking our socks off, Skillet go in a more somber, understated direction.  With its piano intro and John Cooper’s vocals, we go into a song about a man who’s lost a woman (or baby girl, if you’re going with the abortion angle) and dealing with the loss and trying to move on.  And like the other ballads on the album, it’s a slow, melancholic ballad with some beautiful moments, even if it comes across as bland and generic, that’s somehow more beautiful due to how it’s about loss rather than faith.  Its themes, as I’ve discussed, involve, in essence, losing someone dear, thinking about what could have been, but having to live with the choices made and trying to let go, even if it’s difficult.  And even with the abortion angle (which is going to make this uncomfortable for most of you, I’m sure), there’s also this sense that it’s more about the man mourning his wife rather than a possible daughter, or even his daughter, with said angle making it seem as if the choice SHE made either killed her or driven her suicide.  That and another angle could be presented: it’s just the wife or girlfriend who died, and he’s mourning her while trying to move on with his life, knowing that they’ll reunite in Heaven.  Regardless of your beliefs or views, it’s a very sad song with some sort of hopeful spirit, despite the bland instrumentation.  And whatever view you do have, I’d like to know what yours is on this track.  It’s a beautiful, engaging song, but there’s one issue that I’ll explain towards the end.

I feel like Skillet had the safety net of both their entire career at that point as well as trends in hard rock to end like that.  For Stryper, they had more going against them, so they put out probably one of the most epic “hair metal” songs put to tape, and that should get them more credit.  So overall, I feel that Stryper outright deserves this point.  Skillet did a great job with “Lucy,” but “More Than A Man” is a much more impressive track overall.

Stryper: 5

Skillet: 1

Now that we’ve discussed the songs, let’s discuss what they’re about overall.

Best Lyrics:

For this, it’s rather interesting, as both bands have different lyrical styles that match with the ethos of their respective eras: Stryper for hair metal and Skillet for post-grunge.

Hair metal lyrics, like them or not, are about lust, gluttony, pride, greed, and the philosophy of carpe diem.  As a result, you get a lot of songs about girls, drugs, booze, materialism, bad behavior, rebellion, and the occasional political statement as well as your traditional metal songs about dark forces, epic battles, and genre fiction (the last few lyrical themes come from the faster and heavier bands in the movement, by the way).  For Stryper, their lyrics follow not just the sleazier side of commercial hair metal in concept but the darker and more epic side of traditional metal with tales of swords and sorcery, all of it being used instead to preach the word of Christ.  And that’s where I feel they were able to stand tall with bands like Judas Priest, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Ratt, Dokken, Iron Maiden, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, W.A.S.P., Saxon, Def Leppard, Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, Manowar, Jag Panzer, Queensryche, Fates Warning, Crimson Glory, Manilla Road, Impellitteri, Poison, Warrant, Winger, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Whitesnake, Skid Row, Tesla, Ozzy Osbourne, and others.  They were both sheep in wolves’ clothing (singing about God in the guise of heavy metal odes to violence and romance) as well as wolves in sheep’s clothing (bringing heavy metal to a very conservative, very easily-offended, most likely Protestant Christian base, for us Catholics wouldn’t have an issue with epic metal, I think).  By redoing traditionally metal lyrics as song about Christ, replacing girls with God, Satanic terror with Christian comfort, hidden pessimism with blatant optimism, and a few other changes, Stryper successfully made a career out of pro-God heavy metal and gained a global fanbase of worshippers in the process.  If there’s an issue, outside of “To Hell With The Devil” and “Free,” the lyrics either come off as blatantly Christian or can easily have God or Jesus replaced with a girl and the songs would be the same.  It’s not terrible, but it does feel that they subscribed way too much to the hair metal formula at times in how they approach Christian themes.

Skillet is based more in post-grunge lyrics, which deal with, initially, the attitudes and life-story of one’s self, their problems and worries, as well as abstract logic, then it started taking lyrical cues from commercial hard rock, hair metal, country, and contemporary Christian, leading to sludgy, dirty-sounding songs about girls, drugs, booze, white-trash lifestyles, parties, societal values, getting closer to God or whoever they worship, relationship woes, life stories, and whatever a washed-up music executive thinks still sells, even when critics demand rock lyrics to be as dangerous as Radio Disney fluff because of the cancer of political correctness (even if I’m left-wing or right-wing, I believe that clever vulgarity can cause us to think and learn something more than forced cleanliness and kumbaya bullshit).  As a result, you have a lot of alternative metal and post-grunge acts with Christian lyrics and attitudes that may have led to the rock scene being a slightly trashier, more honest, and more fun version of what Nashville was dumping out; the Jägermeister to modern country’s Coors Light, it may taste slightly better, but it’ll not make you as fat and will lead to more exciting parties and wilder ideas after a nasty hangover.  And now you know my views on modern country, I’d rather listen to Saving Abel, Hinder, Taddy Porter, or Black Stone Cherry over Luke Bryan (and so should you).  Rant aside, for Skillet, this has the effect of having two modes to their lyrics, personal and relatable at their best (“Hero,” “Awake and Alive,” and “Lucy” are this, with “One Day Too Late” likely this for dads) and pretentious and immature at their worst (“It’s Not Me, It’s You” is likely the worst offender here).  There are times where it feels either too emo or too blatant in its symbolism in what it’s trying to say, and some of the songs feel like Christian knockoffs of better alternative metal and post-grunge songs, right down to the lyrics.  As a result, the lyrics can get a little grating.

So for this, this is a close tie, but while Stryper’s lyrics can be more epic, I’m more respondent to the instrumentation and the hooks.  For Skillet, when it’s emo or grating, it can hurt, but there are times when I listen to the words and realize that they can relate to where I’m at, and I feel that they relate to me more sometimes.  With Stryper, I can relate to “Free” the most, but most of Skillet fits my life more so and lyrical focus, surprisingly.  Point goes to Skillet in a very close match.

Stryper: 5

Skillet: 2

But if there’s an aspect of the lyrics I’ve mentioned, it’s that they have a Christian bent.  How do they present the will of God?

Best Christian Message:

This one is a lot tougher than you’d think, but there are some ways to look at this.

First, just how overt is the message and how they believe in God?  In Stryper’s case, it’s very clear that they follow scripture, go to church on Sundays when not performing, and view God and Jesus as the ultimate companions in their life.  It’s more “shun the allures of evil, and God will allow you to enter the pearly gates above.  And you can choose if you want to.”  In a certain way, it’s a good message, but one of the most basic ones that they can make.  I mean, it’s really easy to say God is the one I love most other than my waifu and I will live my life to his word.  But to make an entire album out of that sentiment, it’s rather exhausting if you pay attention to lyrics about how God makes them all warm and fuzzy, they’ll never betray him, and that they rock out to spread the word of Christ.  In short, if you are super-secular, and lyrics matter to you as much if not more than the music, then this will get super exhausting to listen to after a while.

Second, does the sentiment of God giving you the strength to face day-to-day struggles work for you?  Then Skillet is more up your alley.  Their message is more “I’m a colossal screw-up, I have issues, but if it wasn’t for my faith, I would have fallen to my demons.”  It’s tougher, darker, and, even in the crappy ballads, something to admire to say that you have the self-will to continue, live on, and fight your demons another day while dealing with the stresses and pressures of life.  And at the same time, God is there beside you, providing encouragement to keep on going.  To a certain degree, it’s more of a bro-friendly message that paint’s God as more of a life-coach rather than the righteous leader of man, and it will have detractors from the agnostic, atheist side of things.  But it’s a message that I feel combats feelings like worthlessness and depression more than “God is great, and you really should follow him.”  I don’t know why, but despite me following the belief system of “what you do is in your hands,” there are times where I feel that another power, a higher power, is not screwing with me but giving me enough hope in my times of despair to live another day.  And sometimes that’s my optimism for the future and the idea that things WILL get better.  And whereas the music doesn’t affect me, the lyrics, and what I feel John Cooper is saying, relates to me more than ever.  As a result, I feel that the butt-rock band singing in the name of God, who have honed their craft and understand what relates to people, relates to me on a personal level message wise.

Sometimes it’s great to just follow God.  Other times, he’s just there for us when we don’t know it, or when we don’t know we need him.  And that’s a sentiment I find more interesting as a person.  And this can apply to anyone who isn’t Christian.  Are you of another faith, do you feel that current religions suck and that modern nerd culture can lead to a better, more inclusive one?  Then the modern band’s message is the one that, I feel, is the better of the two.  More personal, more relatable, and why I feel that mixing Christian with grunge is as pertinent, if not better than with metal message wise.  Skillet gets the point.

Stryper: 5

Skillet: 3

But now for the most important part of this battle, the sounds of it all.

Best Music:

As you have noticed, there is a pattern to how I review music from a sound perspective and what sounds appeal to me more.  For this, I’ll give my praises and criticisms for both bands from a sonic perspective.

For Stryper, they definitely got the hair metal sound down while adding a little edge to it.  The producers on this album were Stephan Galfas and the band themselves.  The former is known for working with many acts, from pop like Cher to metal like Saxon.  As a result, you get a hard-hitting, melodically focused production style that emphasizes the sound and fury of the guitars, bass, and drums, making it sound as if they’re played live, with lots of reverb and punch to the guitars, especially when they squeal.  He definitely knows how to make metal sound good, and so do the band considering this album is theirs to make.  Adding to that is the impressive, almost-virtuoso playing by both Michael Sweet and Oz Fox, dishing out riffs, licks, and solos that follow the Judas Priest and Van Halen formulas with aplomb and give them a distinctive sound as well.  And their sense of melody on the guitars is stellar as well.  For bass, apparently, despite being credited, Tim Gaines never played, so that role went to a session bassist, and it’s arguable that the basslines are very standard and are there to serve the guitar riffs, which they do.  But for the drums and the beats, Robert Sweet is surprising versatile and skilled, adding variations to certain drum beats, going for different types, having clarity in the drum and cymbal hits, and providing some excellent fills in the songs.  No major solos, but definitely a good performance.  As a result, the band is solid at their worst and amazing at their best.  If there’s a problem, it’s how keyboards are used.  Sometimes they work and either punch up a song or create a great atmosphere for the song (or are practically non-existant), or they are used to add to the sappiness and lack of bite to the ballads, turning them into sappy disasters.  But most of the album is guitar-driven, so there’s some great skill here.

With Skillet, when the band is going for muscle, it works.  The production for that album was by Howard Benson, who’s a name you need to memorize if you’re going to study second and third wave post-grunge because he shows up a lot as producer on a lot of albums.  Of course, while he’s a versatile producer, his forte is mainstream hard rock, providing the sheen to make the songs great for radio and punching up the volume, guitars, and rhythm section to ensure that hard rock fans are satisfied.  As a result, the anthems hit hard with heavy guitars, thick bass, and pounding drums, all of which can wreck your stereo if you’re not careful.  And the vocal clarity is also strong here, with them at the forefront, which works when analyzing the lyrics and concepts of the songs themselves.  And to fit with the band’s direction of symphonic Christian hard rock, the use of strings, orchestras, and synthesizers do add to the grandiose, cinematic atmosphere of the album.  For the musicians, John Cooper is a good singer/bassist, capable of the modern rock howls and strong basslines, Korey Cooper, his wife by the way, is a strong rhythm guitarist, able to play some biting chord passages, Ben Kasica, who had his last go-round with the band on this album, manages to add to the six-string fury while playing some decent, though short, guitar solos.  And Jen Ledger is arguably strong as a drummer with her ability to play modern rock beats with skill while her vocals add to the songs she’s a co-singer on.  If there’s an issue, it’s very workmanlike and designed for radio-play, and issue with Howard Benson productions, as he aims for making the songs sound great on rock radio as well as pop and adult contemporary radio, very basic, meat-and-potatoes rock.  And it’s not a good style to craft ballads, as there’s a sense where more effort was put into the lyrics there rather than the music, causing them to feel forced, uninteresting, and like filler.  It’s an issue where your album is trying to appeal to the Call Of Duty and Halo bros and most of your album is loaded with ballads that serve as background noise during multiplayer matches.  As a result, this ends up feeling more plodding, sludgy, and all-around boring when listening to it in its entirety.

And if you already guessed by now, you should know the winner based on my thoughts.  While I have a soft-spot for 00s alt. metal and post-grunge, I am a bigger hair metal fan than a fan of flyover rock.  Heck, I prefer grunge over its commercial clone.  Worse, if I have to choose between a thrash metal song and a butt rock song, I’d go thrash.  As a result, despite some gains from the other album, I feel that To Hell With The Devil is a better album from a musical perspective, and that’s even more important considering this: can you name a Christian heavy metal band before Stryper?  If you’re focused on the underground, maybe, but most people are going to say that Stryper were the first band to combine metal riffs with Christian messages, as well as the first legitimate Christian metal band.  They had more to prove with their work that they were spiritually clean but musically hard and heavy, and based on their legacy, and the quality of their breakthrough album at its heaviest, they pulled it off.  Skillet, on the other hand, came around a while after Stryper’s breakthrough, and the Christian rock base was already huge and capable of bringing out success.  And in their case with Awake, they really didn’t need to do much, as Red state Christians were more than willing to accept positive themes in harder rock, and they were nominated for a Grammy before this.  As a result, they were less hungry than they were fed, and it’s clear that they were focused on appealing to their fans as well as the mainstream here, no need to prove themselves musically.  Heck, the only two things that needed to prove their worth were guitars and drums, since there was a lineup change both before and after this album, and both Ben and Jen pulled it off somewhat in the confines of the band’s style for their final and inaugural performances respectively.  But the rest of the band didn’t and offered an album that’s both a starting point and, sadly, a way to create haters.  As a result, I feel that Stryper are not just the dominant artists musically, bit overall.  They get the point easily.

Stryper: 6

Skillet: 3

And the winning album is:
Enjoy your success, Stryper.
Now for if I plan on traditional reviews of both albums, as time can probably change them, here are my plans:
To Hell With The Devil: 200 views
Awake: 300 views

I have a sense that these won’t change and be added to my queue of albums to review.

So those were my thoughts on 6 hair metal albums.  What were your thoughts?  What did you thing should be the winner?  Did your respect for me drop because of all this?  Do you feel that I gave Christian metal too much credit?  Do you feel that I should have left modern rock to other reviewers?  Feel free to leave all of this in the comments.

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Also, Happy Easter for all you Christians out there.

Next Time on Let Them Eat Metal: Incoming music from a galaxy far, far way.

Until next time, this is the Rock Otaku.  Live Loud, Play Hard, and Eat Metal.

All used references are done under the rules of fair use and are owned by their original creators.

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