Faith or Fear was once poised on a pretty high seat within the emergent thrash scene of the 80s. They achieved a deal with Combat Records, they appeared on the Ultimate Revenge 2 video and album with NWOBHM legends Raven, West Coast thrash legends Dark Angel and Forbidden, and Florida's incredible Death, whose star was only just rising at the time. In fact, for many a spry young metal fan out there in the States, this VHS tape was an introduction to the sounds of most of these acts. There was little chatter in advance. So there were probably huge expectations for the New Jersey mosh band, since they seemed to bear and adequate stage presence and enough riffs and chorus parts to keep the crowd sated. In fact, Faith or Fear was very much a band cast in the mold of the gods Metallica, not only for Tim Blackman's similar vocal bite (not a copy of Hetfield, but close to their first few albums in tone), but the crunch of their riffs often brought up some memories of the Bay Area legends circa 1983-1986.
In reality, Faith or Fear were a pretty average act for this period. They were decent riff writers, capable of some level of memorable composition and stringing together some decent leads with a wild abandon, but as a 'whole package' they were underwhelming compared to some of the more passionate artists of their day, hailing from both Europe and the US. Most of their songs have at least a few good guitar rhythms, but the vocals are very often hit or miss, and you've got to wade through some filler, though granted exciting filler, to get to the better tracks. Punishment Area is certainly a solid debut effort, and one wonders if they had continued along this path what they might have produced by a 2nd or 3rd album, possibly emerging into a stalwart competitor for similar NJ/NY area acts like Whiplash, but the band eventually dissolved and nothing more really came of it in the 90s.
To their credit, Faith or Fear know how to catch your attention, and they paste a few of the more memorable tracks up front on this album. "Lack of Motivation" is a satisfying mosh bit with guitars that don't feel dulled or irrelevant over 20 years hence, and there's a crisp, earnest appeal to the mix of the guitars here that sounds as if they were plugged in and performed cleanly direct from the rehearsal space. The band like to maneuver about a number of tempos in their tracks, so they are largely kept interesting, even when the individual riffs are less than stellar. In addition to "Lack of Motivation", I also really enjoy the title track "Punishment Area", with its searing intro chords and harmonics, and the claptrap riffing of the verse as it shifts into the 'Warning, you have just entered the punishment area...' narrative line that cycles back into the volley of gleaming, sharp-edged chords and then the obvious chorus.
The remainder of the work is mixed, but there are further highlights, like the lead work that graces the opening moment of "Rampage/Nothing Uncommon", a satisfying segment leading into a pretty corny but entertaining song with lyrics worthy of perhaps an M.O.D. or Nuclear Assault during these years. "What Would You Expect" begins with a ringing rendition of a familiar nursery rhyme before pulverizing with some extremely Metallica-driven road thrash, the vocals here almost a dead ringer for everyone's favorite (or least favorite) documentary drama queen. "Time Bomb" and "Shadow Knows" are decent and aggressive, but there is not a lot to lavish otherwise, and in 45 minutes, you've gotten about 20-25 that are truly exciting.
Clearly, there was some potential within this band, and as an alternative to Whiplash or mid 80s Metallica, you may wring out some entertainment from this null rendered obscurity. The album saw a re-release on Century Media a decade after its original inception, and the band have actually since reformed and released the lackluster fan package Instruments of Death as of 2009. As a second or third string backup during the evolution and refinement of the genre in the late 80s, Punishment Area will suffice. Despite being average in nearly every department, there is just enough meat here to eclipse a state of mediocrity. I would rarely go out of my way to listen to this album, but "Lack of Motivation" and "Punishment Area" definitely qualify for that ought of date thrash mix tape you might draft up for your friends. Just enough song writing, just enough complexity and crunch here to escape the realm of indifference.
Verdict: Win [7/10] (you know where the door is, right buddy?)