In recent years, Striker have made a name for themselves with their intoxicating blend of traditional metal, power metal, thrash metal and, hell, even some hair metal (cue “Bad Decisions” on ‘City of Gold’). After releasing their last two albums on the well-known European label Napalm Records, Striker elected to, errmmm, strike out on their own with their new disc, ‘Stand in the Fire.’ It takes some gumption to step away from the comforts of an established label, but Striker had a bit of a safety net here, in the form of a successful pre-order campaign plus funding and support from the Government of Canada and the Alberta Foundation of the Arts, among others.
Any worries that going the independent route would result in a diminution in quality because of cost-cutting and corner-cutting may be laid to rest immediately. Everything about ‘Stand in the Fire’ screams top-notch professionalism, from the striking (heh, there I go again) cover artwork to the massive, powerful production (handled by the band themselves, with mix and master by the renowned Fredrik Nordstrom in Sweden). Interestingly, Striker took the unusual step of retaining the services of freelance Canadian drummer extraordinaire Randy Black (Annihilator/Primal Fear/Destruction/etc.) to guest on the entire album. It’s a somewhat curious decision because Striker have a fine in-house drummer in the form of Adam Brown; nonetheless, whatever the motivation was, Black predictably nails the gig with a powerhouse performance that gives ‘Stand in the Fire’ a devastating kick in the pants from beginning to end. The band also employs two guest guitarists to play solos on seven tracks, including the blistering guitar-centric instrumental, “Escape from Shred City.” Again, Striker have a full-time guitarist, Tim Brown, in their ranks. I can only assume the band’s reasoning was that they could make these songs better with guest performances in lead guitar and drums, so go for it. If that was the calculus, then hats off to Striker for checking egos at the door and putting the album first.
Maybe I’m overthinking it, but the lyrics sure seem to tell a lot about the band’s state of mind this time around. Themes of self-reliance, determination and unity abound, from the gang-shouted “Stick to your guns!” line in the title track to lines like “Find the strength to be the last man standing” in “The Iron Never Lies” to the chorus of “United”: “Tooth and nail / Still holding it down / And we still remain / United / Unbroken / Until the end.” I’ll drink to that. This inner-strength, don’t-give-up message reverberates even through the pre-order bonus track, a cover of Titan Force’s “Chase Your Dreams.” I think Striker are trying to tell us (and, maybe, themselves) a thing or two here about standing tall and not selling ourselves short in this life. It almost seems like the band had an epiphany and are now kicking their career into gear with a newfound energy and vigor. That’s reflected in the lyrics, the decision to step away from Napalm Records, and the ambitious touring plans. At this very moment, Striker are touring Europe on a bill with Primal Fear and Brainstorm. That’s the very definition of “going for it.”
I stress the lyrics, the guest performances, the independent release, and the tour because I think that, taken in the aggregate, these factors also explain why the music on ‘Stand in the Fire’ is so damned good. I’ve always loved Striker, really I have, from the first time I heard “Full Speed or No Speed” back in 2010. Dan Cleary’s powerful and expressive voice, the emphasis on high-velocity tempos, colossal hooks and catchy arrangements, those incredible multi-part vocal harmonies, and the unique mixture of styles (‘80s glam to wicked thrash to everything in between) make Striker a special band in my book. ‘Stand in the Fire’ somehow brings out the best in Striker’s sound with a truly compelling batch of tunes. There are crushing speedsters like “Out for Blood,” “Stand in the Fire,” and “Better Times,” an infectious melodic-rock tune “Too Late,” a Primal-Fearish anthem “United,” and a ballad-turned-thrasher “One Life.” Okay, maybe the saxophone in “Out for Blood” was a misstep (at least, to a narrowminded bastard like me), but otherwise Striker have never sounded more focused, more confident, or more ferocious. While some criticized that ‘City of Gold’ turned too much toward thrash, all the elements of the band’s sound are in perfect balance on ‘Stand in the Fire.’ This album is the first bona fide contender for album of the year. Striker have made a powerful statement, with clear-eyed determination, triumphant willpower, and a renewed sense of purpose. Can’t wait to see ‘em on the road somewhere and stand in the inferno of these monstrous tunes in person. Hopefully their van won’t break down this time …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~