This was the third Petra album I bought. The first two were More Power To Ya and Captured In Time And Space. I got all three of them the summer of 1986. Captured In Time And Space was brand new at the time. I had heard snippets from More Power To Ya at the North American Christian Convention and it immediately blew me away even though it was four years old. I picked up Beat The System when we got home from the convention.
I didn’t know anything about Petra at the time and wasn’t even aware that they had changed singers. I sent off a little card from inside Captured In Time And Space and received a promo photo of the band a few weeks later. I assumed it was the same guys on Beat The System so I had those faces in my mind whenever I listened to it. It wasn’t until Back To The Street came out later that year that I figured it out. By that point I had purchased Never Say Die and Not Of This World as well. I realized that Beat The System had been somewhat of an anomaly in Petra’s body of work.
To this day I don’t know all that was going on with the band at the time but I assume it played a part in the sound. I know that John Slick, the keyboardist, had left the band after Not Of This World and was replaced by John Lawry. Slick was very much a “classic rock” type keyboardist. He used Hammond B-3 and analog synths like a lot of bands from the Seventies. Lawry was more of an Eighties keyboardist. That had to have affected the sound. The drums and bass are heavily processed and I wonder if it is all synth and drum machines. The guitars sound processed as well and lack the bite of earlier albums. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad album. In fact, the songs are really good and the lyrics are challenging. In spite of the questionable production qualities, it’s right near the top of Petra’s finest material.
Now that I’ve said all that, let me go through the album track by track and share my thoughts.
Beat The System – The title track sets the “high tech” vibe of the album and establishes the lyrical theme that runs throughout the course of the album. I am trying to recall secular artists that had a similar sound at the time and Thomas Dolby comes to mind. Even though there is guitar in the mix this is synth-based pop rock. The lyrics refer back to Romans where Paul says that we are more than conquerors. The message is that we can overcome this world’s corrupt system when we live a life devoted to Jesus.
Computer Brains – Musically this is a continuation of the first track. There are computerized effects in the background and the rhythm tracks are sequenced and sound like machine keeping time. The song addresses the consequences of consuming the negative things of the world. Once again, Paul is referenced. Bob Hartman (guitarist and primary songwriter) encourages listeners to take their thoughts captive and to fill their minds with godly things. The old computer saying “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is the lyric hook for the chorus.
Clean – It’s almost as if the first half of the album was meant to be one long conceptual piece. The songs bleed into one another and each lyric build upon the one before. With different production this one could have been a straight-up hard rocker on one of their earlier albums. The riff is really cool even though it is heavily processed. The message is that we are all guilty but can be washed clean when we put our faith in Jesus. This is one of my favorite Petra songs and I was thrilled to see it redone on 2010’s Back To The Rock.
It Is Finished – This is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard. Once again, this one is a hard rocker at heart. It’s a fairly straight retelling of the crucifixion. The lyrics paint a vivid picture and one can almost see the events playing out as Greg X. Volz sings. Hartman plays a nifty guitar lick all throughout the verses that rival the main riff from Judas Kiss. With every beat of the synthesized drums I can just imagine the hammers driving nails through Jesus’ wrists and feet.
Voice In The Wind – I wonder what these songs would sound like with real drums, bass guitar, and less processed guitar. This song feels mellow because of the production but it’s really a mid-tempo rock song that addresses the work of the Holy Spirit. Volz’s vocals are in fine form on every track and one realizes just how powerful a singer he is. The song is a perfect follow up to It Is Finished. First the listener is shown how forgiveness comes through Jesus’ death and then is told how the Spirit draws people to Christ and his atoning work.
God Gave Rock And Roll To You – This is actually the second time Petra covered Argent’s classic song. The first was on Come And Join Us and was faithful to the original. This one is more like an psychotic merry-go-round and doesn’t have the same impact as the original. However, like many, this was the first one I heard. At the time I didn’t even realize it was a cover song. It’s not a bad version and it does fit with the overall feel of the album.
Witch Hunt – This is one my personal favorite Petra tunes even though it is comical and very much tongue-in-cheek. I love the numerous Wizard Of Oz references scattered throughout the background. The lyrics address the highly critical nature of many Christians. I assume that it might have been a response to all those who had accused Petra of playing the devil’s music.
Hollow Eyes – A lot artists in the Eighties addressed the plight of those who were starving in other countries. This mournful ballad equates those who were dying due to disease and hunger with Jesus. His commendation (and condemnation) of those who dealt with the “least of these” is applied to all who suffer throughout the world.
Speak To The Sky – I remember reading the liner notes and seeing that this one was dedicated to Glen Campbell. I didn’t understand why at the time but now that I am familiar with Campbell’s faith and the struggles he went through during his life it makes sense. The lyrics address the power of prayer. I really dig the Scottish vibe with the guitar “bagpipes” in the intro.
Adonai – This is another straight-ahead rocker than suffered slightly from the production. It is also a straight-forward worship song that predates Petra’s own worship album by a few years. The title is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for Lord. Like Clean, I was glad to see this one get the proper “rock” treatment when the Beat The System line-up reunited in 2010 for Back To The Rock.
Grace and peace