Greg X Volz; The Power Singer. Read All About It! By Philip Mayabb
Change can be a curious thing sometimes, especially in the music business. It can be especially difficult for a band, but most notably when it involves a lead vocalist. When the fans are used to hearing a particular voice singing the songs that they know and love, it can be a tough sell when someone new has to take over the vocalist duties. Case and point...after releasing the best selling album of their career in 1984, Chicago had a falling out with bassist and lead vocalist Peter Cetera, who had became the face of the band during the MTV era of the early 80s. After Cetera's departure, the band hired a new singer and bassist named Jason Scheff to replace him, and while the new lead singer sounded a lot like his predecessor, Scheff was not embraced by the fans with the fervor that Cetera was. The band's hit singles began to dwindle down, and after a few short years, the band disappeared from the Billboard charts.
Christian music has had its share of lead singers jump ship over the years, but the one that still garners the most discussion today was the 1986 departure of Greg X. Volz from Petra. Beginning with 1981's Never Say Die, Petra had steadily increased its popularity and notoriety to near superstar status, and a large portion of the credit was due to Volz' dynamic, soaring vocals. After 4 studio albums, 1 live album, and an amazing string of tours, tension began to take its toll on Christian rock's hottest commodity, and in early 1986, Petra found themselves without a lead singer. Of course as history tells us, they found their man in John Schlitt, the former lead singer of Head East, who stepped in, made the position his own, and himself guided the band until its retirement in 2005, but when you can sing like Greg X. Volz, you do not sit on the sideline, you put yourself back in the game. That is exactly what happened with our Vinyl Revival album this week, which I'm sure you've figured by now is Volz' solo debut, called The River Is Rising.
An article in CCM Magazine in the summer of 1986 compared Volz' departure from Petra to that of the aforementioned Peter Cetera from Chicago, as well as David Lee Roth's exodus from Van Halen, and I still believe that they were spot on with that analysis. Petra was the major league of Christian Rock, they were the genre's most popular band, and are still regarded by many (myself included) as the greatest Christian Rock band of all time. While many traditional Christians were condemning Christian Rock as being too worldly, Petra was able to make fans out of many a Christian teenager (again, myself included), who simply adored the fact that a band could put biblical based lyrics to a driving, classic rock sound. We had all grown accustomed to hearing Volz sing songs like God Gave Rock And Roll To You, Praise Ye The Lord, Judas' Kiss, and the other songs from the 4 studio albums he had performed on, and for the record, I STILL enjoy pulling out those recordings, and listening to them. While competition can be a natural sort of thing between a band and its former singer, that has probably never been the case in Christian music more than it was with Petra and Volz. CCM Magazine published their reviews of The River Is Rising and Back To The Street, which of course was Petra's first album with new lead singer Schlitt, in the same month, and even though it was done partially for a simple side by side comparison, you have to think that they were thinking about the competition between the two parties.
As is usually the case when a band has a singer who departs, one keeps the former record producer, and the other moves on, which was the case here. Volz called on the late Jonathan David Brown, who had produced all five Petra LPs that he had sang on, and Petra went west, bringing in brothers John and Dino Elefante for a long run at the helm. In the case of The River Is Rising, that brought some familiarity for Volz, which was probably comforting for him, during his first turn as a solo artist, because he was working with someone who knew him very well. While he was not particularly known as a songwriter, Greg co-wrote four of the tracks on the album, and brought in long time friend Mike Schmitz as the chief songwriter for the project. Schmitz came in with a bunch of standout songs, and as usual, Greg turned in some amazing vocal performances on each of them. On the radio front, both Man Like You and Still Waters were big hits, and there are songs on River that truly showcase Volz' ability as a rock vocalist, and we'll address that in a moment.
Up front, I will give you a brief personal observation...I have never been one to compare the two projects released by Petra and Greg Volz during the summer of '86, and the reason is simple - they don't sound a lot alike. Petra wanted a more organic, classic rock vibe to match the voice of their new lead singer, while Volz stayed with the more electronic overtones that had permeated his final album with Petra (Beat The System). While not quite as technological as Beat The System was, River was a slick combination of rock and roll and power pop, that fit perfectly around Greg's voice. Heavier tracks such as Barrier and Hold On To The Fire showcased the range and power that Volz had utilized to perfection during his tenure with Petra, while songs such as Still Waters and All I Can Do showed off the pop side of Christian music's most powerful voice. Since the albums take a different overall approach, I have always stayed away from trying to compare them, and will continue to do so. The bottom line to me is that in spite of the comparisons and competition the fans and others might have placed between the two sides, both Back To The Street and The River Is Rising are classic LPs, each different in their own right, and in my opinion, any serious fan of classic Christian rock should own a copy of each.
Now then, we get to the album...this is an extremely good debut solo album. The only two things I wish had been done a bit differently are that I would have liked to hear more guitars in the front, and not as many keyboards, and I wish to goodness that producer Brown would have used a live drummer on this album, and not the same Fairlight drums that had been employed on Petra's Beat The System. Those two things notwithstanding, I heartily recommend this album to anybody who enjoys good music. Greg X. Volz is to Christian Rock fans what guys like Steve Perry, Lou Gramm, and Paul Rodgers are to classic rock fans - one of the voices that helped define a genre of music, a reputation he still has to this day. For those of us who are fans of talented, dynamic singing, this album is a breath of fresh air. In a day and age where singers (yes, even Christian singers) are auto tuning their songs to death, singing like this is a rare treat, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy listening to not only this album, but any of Greg's work. For the younger generation, this album is a clinic on what a REAL singer does...no electronic enhancement, no gimmicks, just plain singing.
Some of the standout tracks on The River Is Rising would include Barrier, the album's leadoff song, with a scorching set of lyrics that discuss the rift between two brothers in the faith, and how to repair that gap (it's very interesting when you consider that Volz' run with Petra did not end on the best of terms). This track contains one of the best guitar solos on the album, done by newcomer Kirk Henderson, who is still working with Greg, now as the axeman for CPR Band. Barrier has the classic rock groove, albeit with a little keyboards added in. Joyous Grave, the second song on side one, has an infectious pop vibe, and contains a solo by Petra keyboardist John Lawry. Still Waters has one of the best hooks of any track on the album, when you hear it, you will understand why it was a hit on CCM radio in the spring of 1987. Heaven Is Within You leads off side two, and even though I love the song, it's easy for even untrained ears to tell that they used a drum machine, instead of a live drummer (the drum machine is primarily a beef registered by musicians, and especially by drummers...trust me when I tell you, there is NO drum machine that sounds better than a live person playing a drumkit). In spite of the synthetic drums, it has some great guitar work, and a rock groove that I wish would reappear in today's Christian music. Hold On To The Fire was a #1 hit on CCM Magazine's Christian Rock chart not long after the album was released, and it is also one of my favorites on the record. You will hear the familiar voice of Matthew Ward singing in the background, but it also contains backing vocals from Mark Farner, the former Grand Funk Railroad singer who had seen his own life changed by the power of God. Also of note, Fire is the only song on the album that does not have a Kirk Henderson guitar solo, instead they brought in a guitarist by the name of Phil Keaggy to play it. Uncle Phil loaded up a perfect power pop solo to match the song, and it fits the track perfectly.
As I said earlier, I still enjoy listening to this album, and often times when I do, I am reminded of the situation between Greg X. Volz and his former band that was happening at the time. There are posts on different Christian music groups on Facebook that ask people which version of Petra they prefer...Volz or John Schlitt, and everybody always has an opinion. Some of them are interesting, and I have to confess, as someone who works for a Christian radio station, I am intrigued by what folks have to say. For some, it comes down to a matter of taste - which singer's voice they think sounds better, for others, it may be that they accepted Jesus because of one of the two lineups, and for a few, it comes down to a matter of age, the older fans tend to prefer Greg, while the younger ones lean more toward John. The fact is this...both of these men are amazing singers, Petra did amazing things with each of them, and they are both Godly gentlemen (I've interviewed them both), so for me, there is no competition. I can be in the mood to listen to More Power To Ya (which is my favorite Volz era album) on certain days, and then others, it's Unseen Power (which is my favorite project with John). So the big discussion of 1986 was a non starter then, and still is today (in my opinion), one thing that is not debatable though is that The River Is Rising is a fine piece of work now, just as it was then, and still sounds as good today, as it did 34 years ago.
One final note...in 1986, the compact disc was just making its way into the majority of homes in America, and in response, record companies were more inclined to put bonus songs on the CDs (and cassettes too, in some cases) that we vinyl fans did not get. Such is the case with this album...the CD has the bonus song called Break Out Of The Trance, so you will not be hearing it this week on Vinyl Revival.
Side 1 -
2. Joyous Grave
3. Livin' For The Bell
4. Still Waters (#21 hit - CCM Magazine Adult Contemporary Chart)
5. All I Can Do
Side 2 -
1. Heaven Is Within You
2. The River Is Rising
3. Hold On To The Fire (#1 hit CCM Magazine Rock Chart)
4. Man Like You (#6 hit - CCM Magazine Adult Contemporary Chart)
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