Retro-Spective Review: Barren Cross – Atomic Arena

Barren Cross // Atomic Arena
Label: Enigma Records
Released: 1988

Barren Cross_Atomic ArenaWe don’t get much “white metal” around these here parts. Not that we’re opposed (well, Madam X and Noctus are), but there isn’t much of it out there and even less that’s actually notable. There was a time where it was more in vogue though, and acts like Stryper crafted an entire identity around being good Christian soldiers under God’s righteous command. While I never cared much for those preachy yellow jackets, I did enjoy one release by a band standing in their pious shadow. Barren Cross was a Christian act hailing from Los Angeles of all places and though they were preachy too, they backed it up with far more metal than Stryper ever did. Their crowning achievement was Atomic Arena and whether one agreed with their message or not, there was no denying it was a rock solid slab of metal mixing elements of Iron Maiden, Queensryche and Armored Saint. Quality songwriting, hooky anthems and big performances made this an album I picked up by chance on cassette and ended up wearing right out with sustained plays. It’s one I still go back to after all this time and it’s held up shockingly well considering some of the content and the sometimes maudlin “King of Kings” schtick.

From the strains of bigger-than-Jesus opener “Imaginary Music” onward, Atomic Arena gifts with anthem after anthem. Most are mid-tempo and blue-collar, similar to the typical Armored Saint material and the tougher edge actually makes things work and feel legitimate. If you’re going to use metal to try to convert me, you better sound badass! And that’s where Mike Lee’s vocals play such a big role. He could sound like a dead ringer for a youthful Dickinson when he wanted, but often kept his delivery in a raspy lower register more akin to John Bush. On tracks like “Killers of the Unborn” (that’s a touchy one) he sounds absolutely commanding and powerful. On excellent tracks like “Terrorist Child” (yep, they went there too) and “Close to the Edge,” it’s his vocals that really sell the songs and make them stick. Both songs benefit from simple,  impactful choruses and a weird, epic feel that really catches one’s attention.

Barren CrossWhen they speed things up to near thrash on “Cultic Regimes,” it works surprisingly well and “Deadlock” could have been lifted right off the Armored Saint debut and Lee does a near perfect John Bush impression. There’s something about this particular song as well as “Terrorist Child” that keeps bringing me back even after twenty-five years. Perhaps it’s the emotion they invest in the music, or perhaps it’s a higher power (cue dramatic church organ).

The only tune that misses the mark is the uber schmaltzy “Heaven or Nothing” which is a stairway to heaven too far even for the tolerant and open mind of Steel “Heathen” Druhm. It’s so cheesy and cringe-inducing it might as well be Kip Winger covering Rhapsody Of Fire. Another issue is the rather cavernous, reverby production. The drums sound like they were recorded in Penn Station and they’re also way too high in the mix. Take these minor issues away and the album would be a near flawless victory (for the Lord).

After this little chestnut, they released the respectable State of Control and the less respectable Rattle Your Cage, but nothing compared to this bad boy. While I know the “white metal” and “Christian metal” tag is the kiss of death in this day and age, the fact remains, this is a helluva metal album and worth a look by anyone who likes simple, catchy and classy 80s metal. You can all stand some goodness in your life, can’t you? Madam X and Noctus excluded, of course. Sinners….

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