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'87's golden state of incognito Christian metal - 67%

Gutterscream, July 17th, 2013
Written based on this version: 1987, 12" vinyl, Regency Records

…I’m so thirsty, and I hunger for the truth that sets men free…”

Most Catholic kids I knew, me included, rejoiced the Sunday (or whichever day) we were told we didn’t have to attend church anymore if we didn’t want to. Sorry, it’s far from a fun way to spent part of a day off from school. Really, it's not as if my friends and I were incorrigible terrors involved in all kinds of crazy shit (well, my lovable high school nicknames were Satan and Devil Man, so…), we were simply bored; thirteen or whatever years old, full of hormones, wanting to do anything but sit there comatose for hours, way more interested in peoples’ Sunday hats than the solemn, snail-paced sermon that unfailingly enriched my life with zero impact. I mean, if I wasn't working on my 312th mixed tape or grinning like Louie Armstrong over the anticipated lethality of my latest D&D dungeon crawl creation that my brother's poor adventuring party soon would be blundering into, I was probably giving either my turntable or our tv tubes a workout. I've wrung more fulfillment from tampon commercials, meanwhile I think hurling myself into a drainage ditch without a guarantee of rescue is a risk worth welcoming, as much as, say, a beloved sibling turning up alive and well after finally accepting that he likely died in a Syrian prison years ago.

Unfortunately, similar to church, more or less underwhelmed is how I feel about most then-contemporary mid/late-‘80s Christian metal.

If styles of metal were somehow made physical and metal had an anniversary party or something, Christian metal would be the annoying squid most people seek to avoid. That’s just the way it is, and it’s hard to blame anyone else for this other than CM’s foremost clowns, Stryper. Yep, they came speedboating at us early through the mainstream sporting some horrendous duds, lofty album title ideals, some actual above-par talent, and a small pushy following. And I stress horrendous duds. If they came at us lookin’ like normal dudes, y’know, kinda the way Trouble did, they may have had less crap thrown at ‘em than the bibles they threw at us. Hey, a lot of it was visuals back then. But the yellow and black attack is what we were treated to. To this you can tack on that, by ’87, it seemed to me the one and only sound CM knew was a clean-shaven, no-risk, low-attitude amalgam of hard rock and (often light) traditional metal, and while there’s nothing technically off-the-beam about that musical layout, it didn’t recruit metal fans in droves.

With that in mind, I totally understand why calling this something like California Christian Metal woulda been a pretty nice shot in the foot, and California White Metal may have brought riots to Record Town. Metal consumers picking this up for the first time with interest to buy may or may not have noticed the Christian message that, incidentally, doesn’t come blaring at us like church bells. Would it have swayed your decision? It swayed mine first time around, even with the doomed reassurance of Trouble’s first two albums at my side. Regency Records itself told us nada and there’re no band photos on the jacket, so all we’re going on is the year, two ‘cross’ bands with the rest quite non-committal, song titles with some sap dripping off ‘em, and the knowledge that whomever selected the cover art for this could have totally missed in either direction.

Hey, an inner sleeve…with…band…pho…tos…ahhh shit. Hero, Gardian (later Guardian), and both Crosses are either total hair, total corny costumes, or (naturally) both. We get nothing from the iffy drawing of a mastodon plopped on an amp playing guitar. Meanwhile, Deliverance are the only ones who look like they may haul off and belt us if teased too much. Um, not looking too good here. Pastor Bob Beeman, apparent head honcho of Regency Records as well as the then-fledgling Sanctuary Ministry, gives us some excited words about the common faith these bands share. He himself looks like mad axeman Lizzy Borden. Lyrics on the back, but as always I’m more interested in the music.

So this literal handful of acts arrive on the label’s first gig with a lot of hard rock fancy from the ultra-mainstream (the sole hymns from Barren Cross [“Deadlock”] and Mastedon [titled “What About Me” on the jacket, but “Wasn’t it Love” everywhere else – turns out to be the brainchild of brothers Dino and John Elefante, the latter being the singer for great prog rockers Kansas from ’82-’84 whose lungs gave us hits “Play the Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire”] that kick off each side with the electricity of an old nine volt battery) to somewhat headier rock that might gloss up to a TNT or Keel coat of pizzazz (or lack thereof - Gardian’s “Spiritual Warfare”, Hero’s “Sing it Out”).

Upping the ante to actual traditional metal is Neon Cross’ up-tempo “I Need Your Love” and “Son of God”, an okay song with dialogue-style lyrics offering a stiff-armed attempt at levity. Gardian makes up for their tepid n’ tired side one snoozer a bit with the swiftly-stirred “Marching Out” and its vocally cream-colored chorus. Also dazzling us unexpectedly with one that approaches the rafters of a near top track is Hero’s lively “I Surrender”. Good stuff. But the gold is stolen when the rougher look of Deliverance delivers with a holy roller and a scrapper that are as far above-average as they are unlike each other. “A Space Called You” is a very catchy tune with a dramatically uplifting chorus that swells it to something, I guess, persuasively catchy, persuasive in that it keeps convincing me to replay this heavenly side one closer. “Attack”, on the other foot, commands speed metal pleasure with a chorus of rumbling twin bass that’s coincidentally very remindful of the one in Exciter’s “Under Attack”. For some obscure reason these songs wouldn’t smell the sweet victory of acknowledgement until unearthed over a decade later for some of the band’s compilations. Like usual, this logic eludes me. Regardless, The Almighty has spoken and Deliverance is the band closest to metal heaven here, a band that would go on to release a slew of lps into the ‘90s and thereafter, as would Barren Cross and Gardian.

Saying Christian metal has never been the most popular of styles is as true as saying Satanism has never been the most popular of world religions. The world as a whole really doesn’t want metal. Metal as a whole really doesn’t want its Christian counterpart even with godly doomsters Trouble and Paramaecium, thrashers Believer and Tourniquet, and deathsters Mortification and Living Sacrifice adding their beaten-up halos to the struggle. Spelling it out for ya, metal is way more parallel to the beliefs of Old Scratch. And that’s just the way that is. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going against the grain. In fact, I encourage it wholeheartedly. But that still doesn’t mean it’s gonna work all that well.

The first of five compilations. Not to be confused with the same-named Erika Records-released compilation or New Renaissance’s California’s Best Metal, both from ’85.

“…the voice of God has firmly spoke, the scriptures speak so loud and clear…”