[Editor’s warning: the following is tale of suspense and horror…of mid-80s Christian rock music and youthful prejudice. You have been warned.]
Once upon a time, when I was a young and impressionable lad, my sister discovered a really good contemporary Christian rock band by the name of Petra. This was back in the day when Petra had just released their More Power To Ya album, back in the heydey of the whole backmasking controversy, and I still remember my astonishment at hearing a few seconds of in-the-clear backmasking just before the wailing guitar kicked in for “Judas’ Kiss” — a song that my sister and I had to listen to at extremely low volume so that my parents wouldn’t make us turn it off (or, worse, confiscate the tape). As alarming as the music was to my sheltered ears, though, the lyrics were the most amazing part. Here was a band that talked about all sorts of real issues; they weren’t just moving around words in hymns, or quoting Bible verses ad infinitum. They had a gritty, rubber-meets-the-road way of getting their point across without preaching. They weren’t afraid to state things how they saw them, but they didn’t feel the need to hammer it in, either — they were more than willing to be subtle and let you think about what they were saying for a bit.
A few years later, Petra released Beat the System, which was wildly unlike their previous albums. Up until that point, they had a very classic rock sound — distortion guitar, layered vocal harmonies, the works. Beat the System was an excursion into the mid-’80s technorock, chock-full of glitzy synth riffs. Underneath, though, they still had the good old rock and roll, and some of my favorite Petra songs come from that album (“It Is Finished”, “Clean”, and “Adonai”). Bob Hartman’s songwriting and guitar virtuoso, combined with the sheer vocal awesomeness that was Greg X. Volz, made for some seriously adult music. Not too long after, they came out with the Captured in Time and Space “best of” album, which was a collection of live performances. Alas, Greg X. Volz was leaving Petra and striking out on his own to work on a solo project.
I still remember the day I finally walked into the Christian bookstore we frequented and saw the new Petra album Back to the Street — the first one with lead singer John Schlitt. I put the cassette in the player, popped on the headphones, and pushed the play button, waiting for my first taste of Petra after Volz….and when it came on, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The heavily synthesized sound of Beat the System was one thing; yeah, there was a lot of electronic sound to it, but it was exquisitely produced and layered and there was plenty of bass. This…this crap was high, and tinny, and sounded faintly frantic. And then I heard John Schlitt’s voice and wanted to burst into tears. Greg X. Volz would never be mistaken for a bass or baritone in choir, but he knew how to sing. Schlitt’s voice was high and raspy. Oh, yeah, he could hit the notes, but it was so workmanlike. I was worried that he was going to give himself a hernia, and perhaps give me one for good measure. And the lyrics — wow, taking a step back from the meat and going to the milk! Trite, obvious phrases; strained and stretched imagery — this couldn’t have been written by master songwriter Bob Hartman! I still couldn’t beleive it even after I checked the liner notes and confirmed, to my teenage disbelief, that Hartman (the soul of Petra) was credited as the author of this junk.
I never bought another Petra album — at least, not one produced after Captured in Time and Space. As far as I was concerned, from that day on there was no Petra. They’d disbanded and some group of imposters was trying to take over their good name. And it wasn’t like I was taking any comfort from Greg X. Volz’s solo album The River is Rising; I was spectacularly unimpressed (although not nursing an actively negative impression of it like I was with the ersatz Petra the Christian music industry was trying to push on me). And so I left it for lo! these many years, until a confluence of fate put them into my path again.
A couple of years ago, I was given a selection of ’80s-era Christian music LPs (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as vinyl!). Although I didn’t have a turntable at the time, I knew I would eventually get one again, so I was carefully hoarding away a selection of albums. Then, a couple months back, a co-worker bequeathed her old stereo to me; it included a turntable. So when I cleaned out my office, I brought the stereo home and re-acquainted myself with a bunch of the vinyl.
Upon mature reflection and the space of a decade or so, I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed the heck out of The River is Rising; while it was simpler fare than he’d performed with Petra, Greg brought his usual grace to it. I held off on the two Schlitt-era Petra albums, though (Back to the Street and the followup This Means War), until the right time. This afternoon, I finally put Back to the Street on the turntable and brought the needle to vinyl.
I have to say, the only thing that has changed for me is that now I have the words to describe why I dislike it so much. As that teenager, I only knew I hated it; I couldn’t tell you why. Now I know that it’s trite, insipid fare, and although Schlitt’s Petra is just as sincere and professional as the original group (a distinction I was incapable of making all those years ago), they are fundamentally a different group. It’s no wonder the group turned into a praise band over the years. Oh, they had all the elements there even in the More Power To Ya and Beat the System days — “Let Everything That Hath Breath” is a rock anthem and hymn all rolled up in one tasty power-chord package, and “Adonai” belts it to the heavens with the best of any of Hartman’s offerings — but they still knew how to kick more than a little ass while doing it. And slowly, over the years after Greg left, they turned into, well, sissies. The God I worship has an amp that goes all the way to 11. The God I worship likes power chords in His praise songs. This is the God who proclaimed, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (emphasis mine).
Farewell, Petra. You’ve been grand.