Monday 8 April 2024

Whitecross - Fear No Evil (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
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Here's another band who haven't put out an album in forever and I'm not sure why. The heyday of Whitecross was in the late eighties when the crossover success of Stryper proved that it wasn't an impossible contradiction to play Christian metal. They knocked out four albums between 1987 and 1989 and two more in the early nineties, but the only album since, 2005's Nineteen Eighty Seven, being primarily re-recordings of songs on their debut. So this is their first album in nineteen years but the first with only original material in thirty-two, following 1992's High Gear.

It's worth mentioning that the most recent three albums from their original run ended up with a Dove Award, which is the premier awards dished out by the Gospel Music Association. If that name raises an eyebrow, I should highlight that they've apparently redefined what gospel means in this sense. Whitecross don't remotely sound like Mahalia Jackson or Tennessee Ernie Ford. However, they do create music that meets the GMA's requirements for adherence to faith, which seems to be what counts most nowadays.

That's why there are songs here that are overtly Christian in outlook, Lion of Judah and Fear No Evil the most unmistakable among them. However, that's not everything here, because The Way We Rock is as lyrically generic as its title might suggest and others do their preaching in far more subtle fashion, building stories about people who find their lives lacking something or describing outreach to people who are struggling for some reason. They're still Christian songs but they may not immediately seem so unless you're paying attention. And, of course, you might not care.

Songs like The Way We Rock ought to fall flat as openers nowadays, because we've all heard that sort of lyric a thousand times and it had got old before Whitecross formed back in 1985. However, there's an element to elevate it here, which is the guitarwork of Rex Carroll, who co-founded the band and has remained in place throughout their existence, only missing a couple of years in the mid-nineties when vocalist Scott Wenzel took over and returning in 2000 when the band got back together properly.

His guitarwork carries a serious bite, lending this song the drive of something Dio might have put out in his early solo years. After Lion of Judah softens just a little, he steps into the spotlight for a raucous guitar solo appropriately named Jackhammer that's aware enough to avoid oustaying its welcome and so wraps up in a minute and a change. Carroll continues to be the highlight for me in almost every song, adding an edge even when new fish vocalist Dave Roberts, who joined in 2020, doesn't do so. He's a Dave Meniketti sort of vocalist, able to merge power and melody seamlessly but without as much soul to his delivery, with some Kevin Dubrow for good measure.

For the most part, the best songs are the up tempo ones where Roberts gets to soar and Carroll gets to blister. Jackhammer doesn't really set up Man in the Mirror, for instance, but Roberts has a powerful scream to do exactly that. Songs like 29,000 might have roots in the glam metal of the eighties but it's much heavier than that, pulling from regular heavy metal to drive forward with a serious emphasis, and it nods to the guitar shredders that took over a decade later, without ever getting indulgent. Carroll can shred all day long but he knows that these songs wouldn't be better for that, so he keeps that in check, adding edge when it's needed and going wild only when it's truly time for a solo or to bolster the build of a song to its finalé.

There are exceptions though, not to the quality but to the suggestion that it's only there in those up tempo songs. The most obvious is Blind Man, which sounds fantastic, even though it's built on mandolin rather than electric guitar. Roberts adds huge amounts of grit into his voice for this one and it works really well. Saints of Hollywood adds a southern rock flavour and Roberts shifts into Spanish at points, which works far more effectively than I would have expected.

I could even add Wishing Well to that list, because it's the power ballad of the album but doesn't annoy the crap out of me the way that so many power ballads tend to do. I wouldn't remotely call it a highlight but it's a decent song and I don't feel the urge to skip past it on repeat listens. One extra draw for Christian metal aficionados is that it apparently features three members of Petra, but that doesn't elevate it for me. The same goes for Carroll's acoustic two minute closer, Further On, which is just there.

All in all, this is a strong return for a band who have been absent from the studio for far too long. Much of it is the product a band full of energy firing on all cylinders, but they're not afraid to mix it up and, when they do, the results are varied. Of course, the Christian metal fanbase is devoted enough to not particularly care that much. It's a Whitecross album. They're on board already.

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