SOLDIERS UNDER COMMAND
Released on May 15, 1985 (Enigma Records)
Review by John Stoney Cannon:
Ah yes, Christian rockers Stryper. Perhaps the most unexpected band to achieve mainstream success within a musical genre most notoriously known for its sex, drugs, and mischievous headline grabbing bands than anything else. Then again, maybe it was all just a brilliant plan to stand out in the middle of a mountain of bands attempting to one-up each other with over-the-top acts of debauchery leaving fans forever debating whether Stryper were or are in fact a band made up of faithful Christians using rock and roll to serve a higher purpose. Regardless of level of musical sincerity, one thing is certain though, when lined up side-by-side with the massive pile of hair sprayed, guyliner smeared, spandex stretched 80’s rockers, what Stryper may have lacked in outrageous acts of gimmickry, they more than made up for in excellent musicianship, performances, and most of all, songs.
Over the years, I have found myself gravitating towards songs that manage to not only create immediate visual imagery but at the same time leave enough space for the listener to personalize what they see in their head with their own experiences. Even with Stryper‘s knack for delivering songs loaded with powerful passion and athemic hooks, perhaps the band’s greatest gift half the time is doing so in a way that a song can be viewed in both a Christian or secular fashion. That’s cool though because over the years, while expressing a love for a higher power, the members of Stryper have always let it be known that God is totally cool with putting on a loud rock and roll record and blowing off some good, clean steam.
From the The Yellow and Black Attack! on, Michael Sweet and company have always managed to at least feature a couple of songs on each release that could as easily be interpreted as heartfelt personal secular tunes as the praise songs they actually are. This is usually most visible via ballads and on Styper‘s second release (their first full-length) Soldiers Under Command this idea of duel-sided interpretation can be heard through heart-filled tracks “First Love” and “Together as One”, a pair of pretty tunes as perfect a soundtrack for young love as the higher love it is said to have been written for. A softer approach for softer material perhaps which makes it no less surprising that on the flipside, the band’s harder edged material is filled with straight from the gut to the heart outright support for THE rock.
If the term “bible thumping” is at all meant as a physically strong thing, then on Stryper‘s heavier tunes, the band has never been afraid to plant a Jesus-filled sole across the ears of listeners much like wrestler Dr. D. David Schultz landed a couple open hand smacks across the head of television reporter John Stossel years ago. Difference being that, said smacks pretty much ended Schultz‘s career. Thirty-five years after the release of Soldiers Under Command Stryper is still out in the world kicking butt and taking souls. While the ballads may fall beautifully in line somewhere between the sweetest of Styx and Warrant tunes, through the years, it seems that it has been Stryper‘s ability to pen fist pumping, sing-a-long rock anthems that keep fans coming back for shows and albums year in and year out. Well that and Michael Sweet‘s work ethic. The guy has been part of more releases in the past decade alone than most of his eighties contemporaries combined.
While my opinions on featuring a title track on albums tends to sway depending on the artist (and Lord knows title tracks and Stryper albums pretty much go hand in hand), these guys are pretty consistent as far as creating solid rock anthems to name albums after and perhaps “Soldiers Under Command” is the best of the Stryper title track bunch. At least for my ears, it has been the best just ahead of To Hell With The Devil and Murder By Pride. But honestly, it’s tough not to have a killer title track on each record when you consistently put out solid albums each time, something Stryper have not only done but I’m sure pride themselves on. Sure as fans, we love those first few releases we latched on to in our early years and in the case of Stryper, you can’t go wrong with the Enigma Record releases, in particular Soldiers Under Command, especially the way it slams in full on power chord, duel lead guitar, metal scream crazy with the song by the same name. It’s not pretty, sweet, or soft on the message that Stryper have come to boldly express, no boldly smack their love for God across the hearts of anyone who will even sneak a listen.
Yeah, as fans would come to learn, Stryper have always been chock full of the ability to mold beautiful melodies, harmonies, and hooks into their brand of amped up rock and roll but THE rock of which they sing about is not the only rock of which they know. The pounding drums, thumping bass, loud guitars, and screaming vocals found within Stryper‘s heaviest tunes drawn from rock and roll soldiers such as Black Sabbath, UFO, Deep Purple, and more that came well before Stryper. While Stryper may stand as followers of the heavenly rock, admittedly they exist in part due to being disciples of rock on earth as well which makes a rocking song like “Makes Me Wanna Sing” perfectly fine for Stryper where under the command of any other band, it could easily be seen as schlocky. Whether naturally or just through sheer determination, Stryper manage to always find a way to bring a sort of serious integrity to the most anthemic of their songs.
Of the rockers on Soldiers Under Command, easily “Together Forever” is my least favorite if anything for the opening chant. Sure it’s catchy, in a concert setting easy for even a first timer to latch on and sing along with and all, but from the moment I first heard it (and every time I hear it), immediately “I” from KISS‘ Music From The Elder pops into my head which is cool but as much as I love this album, if I wanna hear an uplifting anthem that sounds like “I”, I’ll just put on some KISS. Not that’s it’s a BAD tune, it just doesn’t hold a candle to any of the other nine songs on Soldiers Under Command. But on a record loaded with great songs, even the weakest one has legs.
The first half of Soldiers Under Command barrels to a finish with on the edge of metal rocker “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” complete with galluping double bass drums and a battle cry perfect for any packed arena or rock club. Toss in a double blast lead solo any Dokken fan would love and one-two punch finish and it’s not hard to hear how perfect a side finisher this one is. If leaving hearts pounding for more is reason enough to get up and flip a record over, “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” is not only a perfect song for the job, but an aptly named one.
One of the reasons Stryper managed to appeal to so many types of rock fans has to be the band’s musical diversity. Whether it be hard rocking anthems, beautiful ballads, or catchy melodic pop metal tracks like the couple that kick off the second side of Soldiers Under Command, Stryper are capable of not only pulling ’em off, but doing so as good as anyone and at times, better than most. “Reach Out” is an uplifting, emotionally charged piece of melodic rock perfectly fit to charge up even the most skeptical of souls while “(Waiting for) A Love That’s Real” is something right out of the Top Gun / Rocky soundtrack playbook where the emphasis is squarely on grabbing that part of the brain that gets stuck on stuff and not letting go. Yeah, the metalheads might call it pop metal but there’s no denying the finger snapping, foot tapping goodness of a solidly delivered Stryper rock and roll song. It’s that middle ground between the hard rock the guys crave and the power ballads the girls fall for. Some call it the gray area but me, I call it the perfect middle ground.
In this scenario though, it’s the equivalent of following up a long distance race by walking a little more to get the mind, body, and heart back to mellow ground, which in this case arrives in the form of delicate piano softie “Together as One.” Yeah, Stryper can punch the distortion pedal and crank with the best of them and as proven, can write a hook, but it’s when the band dig deep into the heartstrings they make it nearly impossible to deny just how much musical talent Stryper possess. There’s a reason why Michael Sweet remains in such high demand to work with other artists — not only does he crank out tunes but more times than not, they are amazing ones. Heck, very few vocalists in ANY genre are as worthy to handle fronting a band known for soaring vocals like Boston, nevermind a rock vocalist. Think about it, even the guy from SteelHeart can’t rock the mic like he did back in the day. Well ol’ Mikey Sweet still can! But before I get too far into the sweetness of this song, “Together as One” is more than just an incredible ballad, it’s the perfect chance for the listener to catch their breath before Soldiers Under Command blasts to a finish.
If sequencing be key for a great album, then on this go round, Stryper nail the song order especially with pre-closer “Surrender”, a final power call to give in but never give up that is above and beyond all out Stryper. From the pounding melodic metal rhythm to tastefully perfect guitars, it’s a track more than worthy of closing out an album but instead sets up the even more perfect finish to come in Stryper‘s rousing version of “Battle Hymn of The Republic.” Not sure if anyone ever expected an ’80s hair band to deliver a take on this Civil War era song that falls somewhere between Elvis Presley‘s “An American Trilogy” version and Queen style power operatic rock but even years later, Stryper‘s rendition still gives me goosebumps. If ever you had to prove Sweet‘s vocal power, this would be the song to do so. I challenge even the truest of hard rockers to find a band capable of pulling of such a feat as getting away with closing an album with such a cover after all we are talking about a song, that in its initial finished state, was over a hundred and twenty years old when Stryper put it to tape.
Soldiers Under Command in its simplest form is just a great hard rock record. Christian ideologies aside, it has just about everything any great ’80s hair metal album is full of including rocking songs, anthems, power ballads, loud guitars, head-splitting drums, over the top vocals, and more. As heavenly a message contained in the metal hymns of Stryper, Soldiers Under Command is first and foremost, one helluva record.
Review by Lance Lumley:
As mentioned in my other reviews by the band, the first time I heard of Stryper was when I was part of a church group with several male teens who would spend one day a week during the summer hanging out. We would work on a sermon to present to the whole church at the end of summer for an hour, and then we would bond by going fishing, seeing a baseball game, or swimming at another church member’s house. It was during the meetings that one of the guys brought in some of his Christian rock cassettes, and Stryper‘s “Soldiers Under Command” was one of them. It was not too long after that my best friends who were not in that group (they attended a different church, but I went to theirs on Wednesday nights) became die hard Stryper fans.
The cover of this album was one that many Christian parents at my local churches freaked out over. This was a time where the idea that Christian rock music was not deemed “acceptable,” more less a hard rock Christian band. Christian pop music was allowed occasionally (mostly light pop sounding), but not music with screaming vocals, powerful drumming, and heavy guitar riffs. And a band standing in front of an armed land rover holding machine guns, declaring they are Christians? Completely enough to send them over the edge.
The opening title track, starting with Michael Sweet and Oz Fox‘s heavy guitar riffs, and drummer Robert Sweet‘s thunderous drum sound, was not for the light of heart expecting to hear a contemporary Christian music act. This was heavy from the get go and in your face. Watching the video for the song brought back memories of how our youth group leaders showed it to our group stating that making a music video was “conforming” to the world of music, by allowing secular music video shows to show it. The great thing about the song is not only the fact that it starts off rocking and heavy to set the pace, but the groove of the song is symbolic of the soldiers coming into the battlefield with a vengeance. The guitar solo on the song is just as heavy as today’s music, and holds up without sounding dated.
“Makes Me Wanna Sing” keeps the driving rock going, with but with a lesser heavy sound than the first. This has the radio friendly style to it. I remember the hard rock fans at my school would make fun of the “cheesy” lyrics of the song, yet they were still playing the song on their cassette players for the music. Even though some critics of the release now think the production needed to be better (or even upgraded), I think it gives the album its uniqueness with its raw and unpolished sound, compared to the future albums of the band. And how can anyone not love singer Michael Sweet‘s screaming vocal note at the end of this track?
“Together Forever” has the guitar style of a Southern Rock / blues drive to the rhythm. The backing vocals are strong here (almost an ode the 1950’s-1960’s hits), and the drumming has a swing feel to it. This song has many different styles of music blending into it, without limiting the overall rock style to it. Stryper were ahead of their time when it came to bringing mainstream success to the Christian metal scene, but listening to this today, they were not just straight hard rock; they had many different genres in their songs.
After rocking out for the first three tracks, it is time to slow down with the ballad “First Love.” A keyboard heavy song until the rest of the band joins in, the song is more to what the normal Christian market was putting out at the time; slow pop style music. The band broke to a new level with their ballad “Honestly,” on the next album, but this song has some strong work from drummer Robert, where he is doing some subtle things that are not heard unless you pay close attention, which doesn’t take away from the song. Once the guitar solo is over, and the song builds to its climax, Robert kicks into a massive drum fill that is similar to the powerful fills of my favorite drummer, Eric Carr of KISS. I always like ballads on an album to give my ears a rest, and this song is an underrated power ballad.
Track five brings back the heaviness of the band. “The Rock That Makes Me Roll” was one of the first songs I heard from this album. I remember being in shock hearing the strong drumming (I was listening to the pop radio hits on the radio at this young age), which was a good thing. Some may point to the lyrics once again and the lack of the bass sound from Tim Gaines on the production, but this song continues the rawness of the album, which brings back the days where bands had to develop the sound on limited budgets when starting out. This is one of my least favorite songs on the album, but the musicianship is still there. I can’t really honestly put my finger on why this one is my least favorite, but I just like the others better.
“Reach Out” is a mid tempo track with a nice guitar solos playing throughout. The drumming tempo changes several times, and is something that could have been placed on their next album and not be out of place. The chorus is catchy that you could sing to, and is a favorite of mine off this album. It rocks without being too heavy, but still has the edge. “(Waiting For) A Love That’s Real” starts off with an organ sound on the keyboards in the introduction, then kicks into a rock song. Lyrically about a girl that is struggling in a relationship but knows something is better coming along, has the Christian themes to it without blatantly stating it. This is a song that could have been on the national radio channels alongside other acts if the band had more backing from the label and money. Michael Sweet plays the lead solo on this track, and is as good as anything else on the release.
Track Eight is another ballad called “Together As One.” This is the weaker of the ballads on the album, but Sweet‘s vocals are not as high on the track as the other songs. Listening to this song, it has some of the same elements that was infused into “Honestly” on the next album. It’s still a nice ballad, but I like “First Love” better, but in timing, if it wasn’t for this song, we may not have had “Honestly” a few years later.
“Surrender” comes in with a chugging sound on the guitars. One thing I like about the pre-To Hell With The Devil releases by the band is not only the rawness, but the underrated drumming that Robert Sweet displays on the tracks, where after this album, he tended to stick to a straight mid-tempo style. His earlier work is really underrated. This song is one that shows it with his fills and still keeping the solid powerful beat.
The other song I remember hearing for the first time by the band is the last track, a remake of the song “Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” The creeping, dreary opening of the song, along with the marching drums of Robert, gives an inspiring, while powerful, sound. When the rest of the band comes in on the song, the strength increases. Again, Robert‘s drumming is enjoyable (being a former drummer myself). The song is a short two and a half minutes long, and having it the last song on the album makes the full listen complete, from the opening driving force of “Soldiers Under Command” charging at the beginning, to the ending where the final battle is over (in terms of the war onslaught of the album), almost adds a concept theme to the album with the first and last tracks.
Soldiers Under Command was the first full album I remember listening from the band (I was exposed to their earlier EP a short time later). The fact that Stryper became the trendsetters in Christian hard rock, and led the way for other bands to follow, makes this record one of historical value in the genre. Yes, the follow up album gave the band massive success, with the band ended up selling millions and topping secular video channels like MTV, but many of us that were in the churches at this time will remember this record firstly (and the backlash the church gave this record). Although the production lacks in hearing the bass lines, the rawness gives it an unique flavor to the album. This should be in every Christian music fan’s collection, as well as hard rock fans, who want solid music with positive lyrics, without losing the hard rock flavor.
01. Soldiers Under Command
02. Makes Me Wanna Sing
03. Together Forever
04. First Love
05. The Rock That Makes Me Roll
07. (Waiting for) A Love That’s Real
08. Together as One
10. Battle Hymn of The Republic
Michael Sweet – lead vocals, guitar
Robert Sweet – drums
Oz Fox – lead guitar, backing vocals
Tim Gaines – bass guitar, keyboards, piano, backing vocals
Christopher Currell – symclabier, guitar
John Van Tongeren – bass guitar, keyboard, piano
Linda Mullen – backing vocals
Doris Castenda – backing vocals
Tammy Thomas – backing vocals
Produced and engineered by Michael Wagener
Reviewed by John Stoney Cannon and Lance Lumley for Sleaze Roxx, May 2020
Stryper‘s “Soldiers Under Command” video:
A classic Christian Heavy Metal song from the album “Soldiers under command” (1985)