Album Review: Back To The Rock
By Petra

By Paul Anthony | December 1st, 2010 | Posted In Album Review

{November 16, 2010}

Abbey Road Studios

If a rock band retires but keeps playing music, does it still make a sound?

If the band in question is Petra, the legendary trailblazers of Christian hard music, then the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Despite formally retiring and stepping off the stage for what was intended to be the final time in the opening hours of 2006, the four-time Grammy-winning Gospel Music Hall of Fame inductee has reunited to perform shows a half-dozen times since.

Not only that, but its two most recognizable members – singer John Schlitt and guitarist/founder Bob Hartman – self-released a praise and worship album in 2007 under the name II Guys From Petra. Now, in 2010, a separate Petra reunion is afoot, complete with brand new album.

The album, Back to the Rock, was the idea of Greg X. Volz, Petra’s first true lead vocalist who fronted the band during its initial wave of success in the early 1980s, when the concept of Christian rock was brand new and not-so-well received by many in the church.

Volz envisioned reuniting this older version of Petra – himself, Hartman, drummer Louie Weaver, bassist Mark Kelly and keyboardist John Lawry – to rerecord some of the early hits, add a couple new songs and tour in support of the album under the name Classic Petra (we’ll just call them Petra for the purposes of this review).

As has been Petra’s unabashed focus since its founding in 1972, the purpose of the reunion is ministry: to reach those of the band’s older fans who have since wandered from the faith. Thus the title of the album and the willingness of four men approaching their 60s to return to the band that made them famous.

Self-financed and self-produced, Back to the Rock is something of a time capsule, containing songs initially sold primarily on vinyl in an era when the records competed with the likes of Sandi Patti and Amy Grant for the top of the Billboard and CCM Magazine charts.

The four albums from which Back to the Rock takes its songs – Never Say Die (1981), More Power to Ya (1982), Not of This World (1983) and Beat the System (1985) – represented the biggest rock records ever produced by Christians to that point, culminating in the latter’s reign as one of Christian music’s top two LPs for six straight months.

Volz and Kelly left the band at the end of the Beat the System tour in 1986, making Back to the Rock the first time this iteration of Petra has performed together in 24 years.

Christian music has changed a lot since then. The market fragmented in the late 1980s, and a host of new bands rose to claim the spotlight – including a new version of Petra, fronted by Schlitt, that reached even higher peaks in the early 1990s before petering out with a final studio album in 2003 and live farewell disc in 2005.

All that prelude to say: The old guys have still got it.

It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, this tension between modernizing the sound and correcting the production flaws in 25-year-old classics with staying true to the songs so loved by a band’s fans, but it’s one Classic Petra walks exceedingly well.

From rockers like “Bema Seat” and “Angel of Light” to ballads like “More Power to Ya” and “Grave Robber,” the album sounds both modern and classic, bridging two worlds that are difficult to reconcile.

The heavier songs see the most improvement: The guitars are crunchier and set further ahead in the mix, and the rhythm is more driving than in the originals. They highlight more strongly than the originals that Hartman has been writing killer guitar riffs for a very long time.

However, the key to making the album work, should it receive any broader hearing beyond the hardcore Petra fanbase, could be in the ballads, where the introduction of strings and other elements give the melodies much more depth than the originals. “Grave Robber” or “More Power to Ya” could easily fit on KLOVE or Air1, though inclusion on such stations, where Christian contemporary music seemingly never existed before “Jesus Freak,” is admittedly improbable.

In many ways, age has led to improvement for this version of Petra: Volz’s voice naturally settles in a lower range than it did when he was in his 30s, and the guitars are tuned down to match it, making for a rawer, heavier sound. Likewise, it allows the songs to sound more modern without as much of the ’80s-style, high-pitched vocal vamping that went out of style by 1994.

Yet Back to the Rock is distinctly Petra and distinctly the sound of a classic rock band: It features guitar solos and keyboard solos and overtly Christian, biblically based songs, all of which seem rarer now than they were 20 years ago.

Finally, the album closes with two new songs: the title track, written by Volz and adapted from one of his solo albums, and the Hartman-penned “Too Big,” which features a twist on a popular phrase of the day by noting in the chorus that “our God is too big to fail.” Both are worthy additions to the Petra anthology, with catchy hooks and choruses that keep the listener humming well after the song is over.

However, neither is as heavy as it could be, particularly in light of how newly crunchy other songs on the album have become. Punches feel pulled on these new tracks, which is a shame because, as we all should know by now, Petra (literally) means rock.

That being said, there is little else here about which to complain – this is an excellent rock album, one sure to please old-school fans of the band but also with plenty to offer those for whom Petra is merely a city in Jordan.

Rumors of the band’s demise were clearly premature. That sounds pretty good from here.

~Paul Anthony

[rating stars="4"]

Favorite Tracks:

Bema Seat
Clean
Angel of Light
Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows

5 Responses to “Album Review: Back To The Rock
By Petra”

  1. James says:

    Paul,

    This was an excellent review…I really enjoyed reading it.
    Thanks for taking the time to put together such a well written piece.

    James

  2. Jeremy Smallwood says:

    Great Review. I believe Mark Kelly played bass on the recording for This Means War in 1987.

    Adonai is, in my opinion the best re-rendering on the new record. It is a fantastic improvement on a rock song that stood on its own quite well.

  3. Move says:

    [...] Album Review: Back To The Rock By Petra « Christian Rock 20 [...]

  4. bob says:

    The only problem with Adonai is that it is not 12 minutes long. I listened to it 4 times driving home today.