Among the dearest casualties of the politicization of everything is fun. When the cultural and historical illiterates suggest that all art is political, they neuter the possibility of art as a universal language and instead make it speak in partisan tongues. What could bring us together – the “language” of metal is spoken as fluently in Rio as it is in Quebec, just with different accents – is instead used to rip us apart. Put another way: nobody wants a lecture when they’re trying to have fun. Nobody likes a “get-together” that turns into a pyramid scheme advertisement. Nobody wants unexpected political content in their heavy metal; they came, like all the other metalheads, for the metal.
For the above reasons, I’m glad Striker exists. Their brand of metal has remained largely intact and they tackle the usual suspects of 80s cheese: being an outsider, heavy metal being awesome, making bad decisions, having a good time in the game of life, etc. The delivery is cheesy, crunchy, and delightful – not unlike a well-made quesadilla. A nice mixture of Anthrax, Crazy Lixx, and a bit of Armoured Saint is the palette Striker works with, and little in that regard has changed on Play to Win.
What has changed is where the emphasis lies in Striker’s overall sound. On the excellent City of Gold, the mixture of cheese and beef was spot-on. Striker reconciled the over-the-top cheese and omnipresent hooks of hair metal with the chops and bruising of pizza thrash and heavy metal. On Play to Win, the cheese takes center stage and the burlier stuff is there to prevent it from flying too close to the sun, like a neon Icarus. This sounds like a minor change, and in writing it is. In practice, it’s more noticeable.
When it works, Striker knocks it out of the park. The four-song winning streak from “Head First” through the title track are all similar in a sense, but each delivers absurdly catchy hooks in their chorus and quality verses that don’t leave you aching for those hooks to relieve you of boredom. The infectious “Head First” toys with something almost “Uptown Funk”-y in its verse before building up to a more hard-rocking power-chord driven verse. The chorus is simplistic and arena-ready, and the lyrics are all about just diving into whatever you’re doing; wonderful stuff, really. “On the Run” nearly clones it, including a softer first half of the verse bolstered with power chords for its second half. It’s one of my favorite songs Striker has ever written; following the “Bad Decisions” template religiously works wonders here. The chorus sounds like the cover, which reminds me of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the best in that series. If Vice City’s fictional heavy metal band Love Fist were this good, I’d understand the in-game hype.
The emphasis on 80s cheese is a blessing and a curse. The title track is a great mix of Sunset Strip cheese n’ sleaze, kicking things up for the midsection solo outburst of fun guitar heroics. No tech-y arpeggios, weird time signatures, just old-fashioned shredding. On the other hand, “Standing Alone” is an overlong and cheesy ballad that all but abandons any heft and winds up being largely forgettable. The synths sound cheap here, unlike on the rest of the record. The most baffling choice here is ending the record with “Hands of Time,” which sounds like something Taio Cruz could have performed in the verse, and those lame hair metal “power” ballads we all want to forget are evoked in the chorus. Penultimate song “Heavy is the Heart” is far better and would have made a great closer. “Summoner” falters a bit in its pre-chorus with a jarring minor-to-major key change but rights the ship in the comparatively darker (dimmed neon) chorus.
There are more good than bad songs here, and Striker have made a fun record in Play to Win. The quality of the highlights makes the lesser songs conspicuous, but these seem like the band toying with new ideas rather than running on fumes in the songwriting department. Don’t let the score dissuade you, as this is worth a listen. Records that score the same – and sometimes lower – on AMG have a spot on my personal shelf. Striker still has the energy and chops to bring most metalheads together in mutual enjoyment and having perhaps one too many beers; they’re still fluent in the universal language of fun and yea-saying. Listen in and be happy.