Introductory Note: In appreciation of Petra’s fortieth year in music and ministry, I am ranking their albums from least best to greatest. You can read my opening post here.
Beat the System (1984, StarSong)
Lineup: John Schlitt (lead vocals), Bob Hartman (guitar), Mark Kelly (bass), John Lawry (keyboards), Louie Weaver (drums)
And now we have reached the upper echelon, the pantheon if you will (and I think you will) of Petra albums. Beat the System is memorable because it is the third in a trilogy of albums which marked and culminated Petra’s first golden era. But it’s also memorable because it was the last studio release with Greg X. Volz as lead singer (that is, until Classic Petra).
John Lawry joined Petra, replacing John Slick on keyboards, and his influence would be immediately felt, as Beat the System is more electronic, utilizing more keyboards, than any other Petra album. While hearing that might cause one to pause before listening, however, the results are fantastic.
The title track starts with the sound of a phone dialing the letters B-E-A-T T-H-E S-Y-S-T-E-M. Then the guitars kick in. The lyrics are a call to the believer caught in the undertow of life to realize they are more than a conqueror in Jesus Christ, and even when we face the heat we can overcome and “Beat the System.” It’s a top notch opening track. “Computer Brains” is up next, warning the Christian to consider his or her life and what he/she is putting into it. Garbage in will produce garbage out. The music leaves a little to be desired from me, as does a Volz’s vocal bridge about two-thirds of the way through the song.
The third and fourth tracks are fantastic. “Clean” opens with buzzing Hartman riff and is a rocker with uplifting lyrics reflecting on the cleansing we’ve received through Christ: “Where are my accusers? Nowhere to be found. They all dropped their stones when the Master came around. Cause I’m clean! Clean! Clean before my Lord!” That song is followed by one of Petra’s most memorable, and about the best song you could imagine closing a concert with (such as Captured In Time and Space), “It Is Finished.” It’s the story of Christ’s death on the cross, but a song of victory because of Jesus’ resonating words.
“Voice In The Wind” is up next, and to me it’s average. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not bad, but it’s not up to par with most of the rest of the album. Almost every album has that, though. This one is about the Spirit blowing and the need for the sinner to listen. Theologically it’s a little questionable, which doesn’t help my opinion of it.
“God Gave Rock and Roll to You” follows. It’s probably best known as done by KISS, but Petra did it before them, even though it’s originally by Argent. This is an updated version from 1977’s Come and Join Us. Honestly, I like the ’77 version better, but that isn’t a complaint on this version. I would have LOVED to have heard a Jekyll & Hyde heavy rock version of this.
My least favorite song on this album is “Witch Hunt,” with lyrics warning against getting distracted from laboring for the gospel to pursue things which just aren’t as important. The message is important to be sure, and useful, but the music and the effects (including a witch voice) just turns me off. One of the few Petra songs I more often skip than listen to.
“Hollow Eyes” is the only true ballad on this album and I remember liking it on the Petrafied compilation CD before I even owned this album. Written with a view toward the famine in Ethiopia and other African and third-world nations that was in our own nation’s consciousness in the mid-’80s, and written before “We Are The World,” this song doesn’t just call the listener to do something about the problem, but points people toward the greater solution: “The least of these is hungry. The least of these is sick. The least of these needs clothing. The least of these needs drink. The least of these knows sorrow. The least of these knows grief. The least of these has suffered pain, and Jesus is His name. Do you dare to gaze into His hollow eyes, hollow eyes? Is He staring back at you with His hollow eyes, Hollow eyes, hollow eyes?” Powerful stuff.
“Speak to the Sky” is a good rocker calling the believer to recognize and capitalize on the power of prayer.
Then, finally, comes “Adonai,” which ranks as a personal favorite of mine. It’s as good a worship song as you’ll find in contemporary Christian music, for the ’80s or in the present day, and it rocks. “Adonai! Master of the earth and sky. You alone are worthy, Adonai!” Lawry’s keyboards stand out and are complimented expertly by Hartman on guitar.
Overall, Beat the System is a terrific album, and if not for a couple of hiccups could have easily been higher. I struggled with whether to rank it here or one or two higher. “It Is Finished,” “Hollow Eyes,” and “Adonai” rank among the greatest songs in Petra history. The album is important for historical reasons, and definitely had a different sound than anything Petra did before, or after really. But it’s really good, and no Petra fan’s iTunes library is complete without it.