During the second generation of Christian rock in the early to mid ‘80s, reaching out via musical genres previously thought by even the most fervent contemporary music supporters to be at best ill-suited if not utterly inapplicable to evangelical/edifying work gained a foothold. Among the purveyors of these new musical realms were Altar Boys.
Roaring out of their Calvary Chapel Santa Ana home base, Altar Boys were ofttimes classified as a punk band. While there were elements of the genre woven into the band’s fundamental style, Altar Boys had a far broader musical brew pot from which to pour its aural caffeine for ears numbed by the world’s angry static. Big but never overblown anthem-worthy hooks were layered atop gritty, raw rock energy, topped by guitarist/lead singer/band leader Mike Stand’s passionate, granular vocals. The message was as uncompromising as the music, calls to embrace the fundamental of Christ crucified and risen intermixed with offering hope to the hurting. They were never a critics darling, but to their core of loyal fans Altar Boys were a lifeline to the ultimate lifeline.
As the ‘80s morphed into the ‘90s, Altar Boys wound down. Following the release of the band’s fifth album, the uneven Forever Mercy, bassist and songwriter Ric Alba left to follow his own path. His replacement Mark Robertson, alongside drummer Jeff Crandall and lead guitarist Steve Pannier, in time found the decided lack of financial reward and demands of burgeoning family lives too great to keep things going. Altar Boys never broke up per se; they simply stopped as each member pursued different vocations. The band was closed for business …
… except for its unfinished business.
In 1991 and 1993, Altar Boys recorded key elements of its sixth album, one intended to reunite it with its strengths after Forever Mercy’s excessive stylistic meandering. Lead vocals and primary guitar tracks were completed. The project was far enough along to where promotional material was created and the band used the upcoming album’s name on concert posters. All that was left to do was finish the album – which was exactly where the project stayed for twenty-five years until, through a lengthy and not always pleasant set of circumstances, it was pressed on Stand’s heart to resurrect the album, completing what he had publicly commented he wished was the band’s final record instead of Forever Mercy. Thus, with the other band members firmly on board and recording their parts missing from the original sessions, No Substitute was released last year.
The greatest surprise awaiting anyone who gives No Substitute a listen is how fresh it sounds. Altar Boys’ original albums, while loaded with terrific songs and performances, suffer from typical ‘80s production excesses – far too much echo on the snare drum, anemic bass, an overall somewhat hollow and thin sound. No Substitute has no such problems, the result being an album that musically fits seamlessly alongside the Green Days of this world even as it blows the aforementioned Berkeley pop punk trio away.
Stand was in fine writing form for No Substitute, with nary a weak track to be found. Simple yet fresh and effective melodies abound, bracketed by hooks galore and choruses demanding immediate sing-alongs. Lyrically the album is classic Altar Boys unambiguous power, never afraid to name the Name or show the way to Jesus out of love and concern.
Many artists have tripped over themselves while attempting to reproduce old glories. Altar Boys have no such problem. By taking what was left behind and completing it with brio, the band has graced us with a welcome slice of joyous rock bursting out for all the right reasons. There is indeed no substitute for the real deal, and No Substitute is as real as it gets.
The album is available on the band’s Bandcamp site.