By Carl Begai
It’s probably in poor taste to suggest the members of Stryper have sold their souls in exchange for their current success. The Christian metal band’s 2005 comeback, Reborn, put an end to 15 years of silence (not including some sporadic touring) and was an all-important step into a decade that saw the band release four studio albums, a cover album, a volume of Stryper re-recordings, and a live record / DVD, interspersed with international tours. Considering the way Stryper splintered and died following their Against The Law album from 1990, nobody really expected them to get back together let alone turn the momentum kicked up by Reborn into wave after wave of in your face material. Their latest assault is the fourth album of all original songs since Stryper’s reunion, and album entitled Fallen that has the fans locked in yet again and has vocalist / guitarist Michael Sweet grinning from ear to ear.
“At the end of the day what’s important, obviously, is that we feel we’re pleasing God and we’re pleasing ourselves,” Sweet says of the band’s continued success. “The icing on the cake is how the fans feel about the new album.We try to ask questions and get feedback from the fans, and we apply that when we make an album. If they want to hear an epic six minute song with tempo changes, we give them ‘Yahweh’. We try to listen to the fans without selling ourselves out, and I think we did that this time.”
As a first taste of Fallen, it’s safe to say nobody was expecting the epic attack of ‘Yahweh’. The song is easily on par with one of Stryper’s strongest songs ever, ‘Soldiers Under Command’, and goes a step beyond.
“I don’t think anyone was expecting that, truthfully. It’s definitely down a different avenue for us. We’ve never done a six-and-a-half minute song, we’ve never had a bunch of time changes in a song; it borders on the progressive side of rock. Did we do that to try and fit in? No. We grew up on all this kind of stuff. We’re huge Iron Maiden fans and we love Dream Theater, we listen to all of that stuff, and it’s not out of our wheelhouse at all to do something like ‘Yahweh’. And then you bring in the fact that Clint Lowery from Sevendust had a hand in the making of the song… he sent me the original riff and I ran with it.”
Considering the ebb and flow of metal since Stryper broke out in the ’80s, it’s fair to say the band is more relevant now than they ever were. Chalk it up to staying in the metal public’s eye consistently since Reborn.
“It is pretty remarkable,” Sweet agrees, “and I feel if you were to take the popularity of the band right now and this surge that’s going on with the fans, take that back to 1988 when we released In God We Trust, I think we’d have an album that could do 10 million in sales and see Stryper playing larger venues. I think Stryper would have become larger than life. It’s a struggle for bands these days because of the music industry but at the same time, with Stryper being the underdog band that never fit in, for us to still be around and somewhat relevant playing sold out venues is really astonishing. A band that’s gone against everything really shouldn’t still be around.”
Some folks are happy to argue against Stryper’s relevance and worth, of course, and Sweet is more than happy to shut them down.
“It’s funny because I go on YouTube and Facebook and read the comments – I probably shouldn’t but I do (laughs) – when we get some jackass saying Stryper sucks and isn’t relevant, I’d like to pull these people out of their Mom’s basement and take them to one of our shows so they can tell our fans that. They’d probably get a good beating. In the name of God, of course (laughs).”
The way Sweet talks about the inner workings of Stryper, it’s clear he is in fact the creative force steering the ship now more than ever. Makes sense considering the band fell to pieces when he left back in 1992.
“I am, and I know some people will roll their eyes at this because I’ve seen it in person. That’s fine. It’s always been like that. Robert (Sweet / drums) was always the visual guy and I was always the music guy. I wrote at least nine out of 10 songs on every Stryper album in the past, and 10 out of 10 songs on the newer ones. I write and arrange them and teach the songs to the guys, but that’s not to take away from Tim (Gaines / bass), Oz (Fox / guitars) or Rob. They’re very talented guys and we all write, but we all write in different styles. I’m the guy that writes the Stryper style that you’re hearing now and what is considered our classic sound. That’s what I do.”
“I’ve always got new ideas in my head. I’m always humming a melody. If you and I were to go a get a coffee right now, at some point you’d hear me humming to myself because there’s always music being made in my head.”
“Here’s the thing, and I’ve talked about this a lot over the past four or five years: I’ve been diagnosed with being ADHD. The person that diagnosed me with it said it’s a great thing and probably the reason why I’m so driven and fairly successful at what I do. That’s because I hyper-focus on what I do, which is make music. When I start on an album that’s all I do until it’s done. Unfortunately, it’s not good for my family and my friends because they don’t hear from me for three months (laughs). I don’t return emails or phone calls, it’s a bad thing. But, that being said, I’m very focused, and when people say I can’t do something it makes me want to do it even more. I’ve heard all the comments saying that Stryper’s well has gone dry, and I don’t want to say we have anything to prove, but it sometime feel like we do. I’m make a promise to everybody: until we stop making albums, each one is going to get better. We’re not gonna go back, we’re gonna go forward. The next album is going to be better than Fallen.”
Brave words when you take into account Fallen’s predecessor, No More Hell To Pay, was pegged by many of Stryper’s die hard fans as the best album since the band’s legendary 1986 record, To Hell With The Devil. But yeah, Fallen is in that stratosphere even though there’s a marked difference between the two.
“Fallen is a little bit of a departure for Stryper, and that’s what I like about it instantly better than No More Hell To Pay,” Sweet admits. “And I love No More Hell To Pay; that’s a Stryper album I can actually listen to from start to finish. I can’t listen to The Yellow And Black Attack, In God We Trust or Against The Law. I won’t call those three albums masterpieces because I don’t think they are. If you ask me what the Stryper masterpieces are, I would say Soldiers Under Command, To Hell With The Devil, and No More Hell To Pay. Those are my three epic Best Of Stryer albums. I can easily say add Fallen to that list.”
“The thing I like about Fallen is the sonic quality of it. We did something different by going to an analog console in the digital realm, and it added something in the low end department that No More Hell To Pay doesn’t have. This is a beefier sounding album, I like the flow of it, and it’s a little more focused in terms of the direction. I’m so pleased with the road that we’re on right now.”
Which is reminiscent of the band’s anthem-oriented To Hell With The Devil days.
“Exactly. I can’t wait to do another album (laughs). And I’m actually going to start work in a few weeks on a solo album. It should come out in April or May next year. I’m going real old school with that one; no keyboards, no big background vocals, guitar driven, metal a la ‘Run To The Hills’. It’s going to be really different for a Michael Sweet solo album. It’s the sort of thing where it’s really what I want to do, and I’m kinda tired of hearing ‘I like your solo stuff but the Stryper stuff is way heavier…’ for the past 20 years. This solo album is going to be as heavy or heavier than Stryper. Imagine when you heard ‘Yahweh’ the first time; every song on my solo album is going to be that epic kinda stuff.”
It’s interesting how Sweet is so gung-ho about making music, yet earlier this year he aked Stryper’s Facebook followers how it would go over if the band “found some young lad who can hit all the hight notes and I just play guitar and sing from time to time?” The thread quite naturally exploded like fireworks in a Zippo factory.
“(Laughs) I was interested in hearing what people had to say, but I was partially serious because it’s getting harder and harder to sing these songs, man. I can still do it but it’s definitely harder to hit the high notes. I have my vocal chords checked out every three or four years, and the doctor always comes in and says ‘Your vocal chords look perfect.’ The problem is that as we age the vocal chords start to stiffen and you lose your range.”
An affliction that has yet to slow Sweet down. Listening to him pull off the high end scream capping off ‘The Way’ live, for example, is still a goosebump-raising moment some almost-30 years on. Not the least bit shabby for a metalhead over 50.
“I do it when I can for the most part, but sometimes I can’t,” says Sweet. “I try and choose my battles when we play live, I don’t hit every high note, but I try to hit the ones everyone expects to hear like in ‘Soldiers Under Command’ and ‘The Way’.”
Stryper has never been shy about their Christian beliefs and Fallen is as message-heavy as they’ve ever been, with Sweet going so far as to use scripture as the basis for some of his recent lyrics. The band’s pro-Christianity stance rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s interesting to see how much the metal press supports Stryper as a viable entity these days. It’s a far cry from the ’80s when praise for their work was consistently (over)shadowed by religious stigma.
“Metal and rock n’ roll is all about rebellion, it’s all about rebelling against ‘the man’ or society or whatever, and Stryper are the biggest rebels of all,” Sweet says without batting an eye. “We’ve rebelled against metal and metalheads, we’ve rebelled against everybody. Christianity is not popular; people are getting their heads cut off for it, and here we are waving the flag for Christianity in front of 10,000 Muslims in Jakarta. That’s rebellious. Let’s see Slayer do that. I have nothing against Slayer at all, but I’ve heard all the comments about us: ‘Stryper are a bunch of pussies, they’re faggots, they can’t play, they suck…’ We get those comments all the time. It’s unbelievable. And I’m just thinking ‘Really..?'”
I recount for Sweet an incident from earlier this year when I played ‘Yahweh’ for a metalhead friend and asked him who it was. Dude had no clue, and when he was informed it was Stryper his jaw dropped. If he wasn’t a Stryper convert, he at least gained some respect for the band.
“It’s funny we’re talking about this,” says Sweet. “A buddy of mine plays Stryper songs for his co-workers without telling them it’s Stryper, and I don’t know if it was ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Fallen’ that he played for them the last time but those people thought the song was amazing. They asked who it was, and the second they heard it was Stryper they were like ‘Oh, yeah, well, I’m not into that.’ That’s crazy, and it comes down to this and this alone: we are Christians. It’s as simple as that. The world hates Christ for the most part.”
And yet Stryper is still here and making some real noise, which is a sign of true strength. Sweet appreciates the sentiment.
“It comes down to Good versus Evil. If you stand for God you stand for holiness, and Evil hates holiness. I’m a sinner, I do evil things, I’m not this perfect saint, but there are people in the world who don’t like Christianity, or they’re Atheists that attack Christians like wolves. That’s a big part of what drives Stryper. We like the challenge, we love what we do, and we’re going to keep doing it. We don’t let this bring us down. We’re going to keep going and if it aggravates people, so be it.”