Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Rage of Angels - Rage of Angels (1989)
This is one of those "holy grail" albums that many Christian metalheads cite as both a perennial favorite, and an album that was part of their early diet of Christian hard rock & heavy metal. I can't say the same - I didn't acquire the album until sometime in 1998, nearly 10 years after its initial release. Quintessential Christian rock distributor Rad Rockers had hit their stride from a simple, basement-based photocopied catalog distro, to become a full-fledged, multi-paged catalog vendor, and was taking their first steps onto the new frontier that the Internet provided. Of course, many other distros & labels were still in their infancy at that point, some of which would become major players in the "Christian" rock & metal scene (such as Tooth & Nail Records, and their budding Solid State subsidiary, or Facedown Records with their early 7" releases), which made a distro like Rad Rockers fertile ground for new releases. One thing that RR excelled at, however, was retro releases. Back in the day, it wasn't uncommon to get the latest RR catalog with a note saying they had uncovered a stash of a certain CD that had gone OP, and had found the last known remaining stock. Or sometimes, the labels themselves will have a box of unopened CDs sitting in a warehouse somewhere, and when it's discovered, they know that RR was a reliable place to go, because fans who missed out on that album the first time would be hungry to snap up a copy. Such was the case with the eponymous debut of Rage of Angels. If memory serves, nearly 10 years after it's release, an unopened box of the band's debut CD was discovered gathering dust in a warehouse back room somewhere, and Rad Rockers had been tapped to be the distro for that last remaining stock. Having heard "Are You Ready For Thunder" years before on disc 2 of the Heaven's Metal CD boxset, I had been searching for a reasonably-priced CD copy of the album. I had basically sworn off cassettes at that point, choosing to focus primarily on CD and vinyl acquisitions, so despite the occasional Rage of Angels cassette coming available, I always passed it up for a CD copy, knowing that I wouldn't regret it. When the news hit in the catalog that a large number of Rage of Angels CDs had become available from original stock, I nearly hit the floor. Finally, my chance had come to own a copy of this album at a reasonable price! Without hesitation, I procured a money order within 24 hours & sent off for the Rage of Angels CD, as well as a couple other things I had been wanting (a victim of RR's then-policy of $50 minimum order, even for domestic US customers). Within 2 weeks, I had the disc in hand & franticly tore the plastic off the jewel case in anticipation of popping it in the CD player. My wife stood there rolling her eyes & wondering what all the fuss was about, but I knew I had just struck gold. Of course, I don't get that way with every purchase nowadays (I tend to buy a bit more often now than at that time), but there are certain purchases that are the kind that if you've waited for so long to take the plunge, you get that "kid in a candy store" feeling when you open the box or envelope from the mailbox & see that item for the first time in your hands.
Of course, I'm going somewhere with this, if it wasn't already apparent. After perusing the lyric sheet, and reading all the liner notes, I popped the CD in the player & proceeded to hit play. Lo and behold, my expectations were met & exceeded, as the first couple tracks were even better than what I thought they would be. They didn't sound like "Are You Ready For Thunder", but they didn't have to - they were even better. Being in my own band at that time & injecting a classic heavy metal sound into the modern rock/metal sound we were pursuing certainly helped fuel that fire, but this was a release I had looked forward to since I first heard of the band back in 1993. The moral of the story? My 5-year wait was definitely worth it.
So where does this leave things today? Well, still pretty good. Time hasn't been quite as kind to this album nearly 20 years after it's initial release as it was 10 years after. In today's "Christian" market, we have very good & consistent rock & metal releases from bands all over the world, and there is a lot of creativity in many of the underground acts. Even some of the more "mainstream" acts (if you can call them that) rival their secular counterparts from time to time, as is the case with Red and Skillet rivaling many nu-metal or modern hard rock bands, or As I Lay Dying dominating the metalcore landscape quite a bit. Back in 1989, however, only Stryper and Barren Cross had earned any real respect from the mainstream metal publications. Other bands like Saint and Bloodgood had received some coverage, but were usually written off as second-rate, even if they had plenty to offer. Rage of Angels was another band that was on the verge; their album had garnered some respect, which was well-deserved. Musically, this is a powerhouse album that so perfectly captures that line between hard rock and heavy metal (we'll call it "commercial metal") that it is nothing less than essential for completists and fans of the genre, as well as more than a curiosity for commercial metal fans in general.
Fristly, let's get the negative out of the way. Time has not been kind to this album where the lyrics are concerned. Granted, this was a young band who was just finding their Christianity, so that has to be factored in, but if you're turned off by "rock for the rock" lyrics, you'll not find anything overly articulate here. That said, they're not quite as embarrassing as they could have been, and they do fit the themes well, if a tad trite. The other thing that is a very slight negative is Dan Marino's vocals. Now, I'm a fan, for sure. He has power, passion, and energy. Once in a great while, however, it sounds like he over-sings just a touch. It's probably more noticeable to me since I'm a vocalist, but that's only a minor complaint. For a young band recording their debut, these little quips are very forgivable.
The instrumentation here is nothing short of stellar. The dual-guitar work is great, with nice riffing, a heavy (for the style) guitar sound, and lots of great licks & lead work interspersed throughout. The bass guitar is audible, which is a welcome surprise, and rumbles along with the guitars and drums in perfect time. The bass work isn't going to win any awards, but it's very solid and fits well. The drumming is a high point of this release, as there's lots of little nuances that other more basic drummers playing this style wouldn't necessarily employ, so it gives it that pinch of uniqueness that helps keep this album fresh. There's also a lot of solid double-bass drum work, which is nice to hear in a more commercial metal record. Vocally, Dan Marino is all over the place, with super high-pitched screams and yells, as well as great mid-range & tenor vocals. Dan's voice has just enough grit in it to give this an edge, but is smooth when it needs to be, or in the lower range parts where appropriate so you can hear the words clearly. Dan is also one of those guys who multi-tracks his vocals flawlessly. When you can hear the harmonized spots in the choruses & such, many of those have 2 & 3 layers, sometimes more. Dan is nearly pitch-perfect in these spots, and sounds excellent. The blend of the instruments works well, though I'd say the double-bass drums tend to dominate a bit, and the tom-tom work is slightly muted as a result, but this lack of balance doesn't really hamper the listening experience much, if any.
Lyrically, as mentioned, the album is a sea of early Christian metal cliches, but there are a couple bright spots in the mix. Opening track "Leave You Or Forsake You" is nicely done, with some well-written lyrics that don't pander, but explain plainly about man's relationship with God and how, while not always perfect, God doesn't leave us high & dry. "It's Not Late For Love", despite it's simple approach, is effective in communicating that no matter how "down and out" you might feel, God is there with His love and is ready to accept you. "Somebody's Watching You" takes a more hard-line approach by saying that God is always watching what we do, and we'll have to account for our actions here on earth. The song is complete with the mandatory "spoken word" section that every commercial metal band employed at least once. "Hooked On a Good Thing" (my absolute favorite song on the album, with it's insane drum intro & monster riff) takes addiction and disease as metaphors for being filled with God's love and power upon salvation. It's a tad cheesy, but quite effective in communicating the message clearly.
At the end of the day, no matter what anyone's personal opinion of this album is, the reason it's still talked about nearly 20 years after its initial release has more to do with the albums merits & quality than it has to do with the band breaking up and some members going on to join Steelheart. If anything, time has only strengthened the album's position as one of the key late-80's releases in Christian metal that helped to legitimize the genre and show that there was quality to be found in places other than yellow and black spandex. That reason alone is enough to recommend this album, but the sheer quality of the material here (lyrical faux pas not withstanding) makes this album essential for the collector who wants a piece of Christian metal history, and for the metal fan who wants a piece of the pie that isn't replete with innuendos and nonsense.
I'd like to dedicate this review to the memory of original Rage of Angels drummer John Fowler, who passed March 21st, 2008 from an aneurysm, at the ripe young age of 42. Knowing that several members of Rage of Angels had only become Christians a short time before the recording of their debut, I'm hoping that John is with the Lord right now. May his family take rest in the knowledge that the album he helped create in 1989 went on to inspire a lot of people, and possibly even help plant the seeds that led some to Christ.