Tuesday, April 21, 2020

GODDAMN! That's Glam! Stryper - Against The Law (Enigma, 1990)

GODDAMN! Thats Glam! 

Stryper- Against The Law (1990), #39 Billboard Albums Chart

Michael Sweet - Vocals, Guitar
Oz Fox - Guitar
Tim Gaines - Bass
Robert Sweet - Drums

Writer: Michael Sweet Solo

Producer: Tom Werman (Shout At The Devil, Cheap Trick's In Color, Heaven Tonight, Dream Police and Twisted Sister's Stay Hungry. Apparently owns a B&B in Lenox, MA might have to check that out and do a podcast, dude must have great stories!)

"There are no atheists in foxholes." Is it accidental that I found Stryper during the COVID-19 lockdown? God works in mysterious ways. :P

I have known of Stryper's existence since freshman year of college. As I was devouring any and all 80s heavy metal, especially that of the glam-tinged variety, I ran across Stryper. My first Stryper song  was "Calling You" after watching the music video. I liked it enough that I downloaded it. Stryper looked like a typical LA band, big hair and makeup. They did seem to have this gimmick of wearing yellow & black stripes, which made them look like the Killer Bees. I didnt think much of it.  Then I kept listening to the song which I loved more for the vocals, really well-done harmonies especially the really glammy ending. As I listening to the song, I realized there was something odd about the song. Is he singing about a Man? Oh wait, are they singing about God & Jesus? Then I looked it up they were a Christian Glam Metal band. "Holy shit!" :P

Even though I am a practicing Catholic, Christian rock has never really been my jam. There are some Church hymns that I really dig ("Here I Am Lord" gets me everytime, I am always crying during that song). However, once you add guitars and drums to it, you end up with "My God is an Awesome God" and I am lactose intolerant to that level of cheeze.  I find most Christian Rock to be excessively cheezy and I also dont like how it is mixed. It is mixed specifically so you can hear the lyrics. So the vocals ride high in the mix and the actual rock is buried. So it takes the balls away from the music. What I love about Stryper is they sound like a heavy metal band first that just happens to sing about Christ rather than a Christian band that plays heavy metal in the background. Stryper shows you can keep your balls and still praise the Lord above.

Over the years, I have found myself to like a couple more Stryper songs such as "Free" and "To Hell With The Devil", but the Power of Christ never compelled me to listen to an entire album. Then Stryper's number came up. I have a list of 355 Heavy Metal Albums from the 80s (yes the 80s include 1990 & 1991) and I use a random number generator and up came Stryper's Solider Under Command, their debut album. It fucking rocked! I mean face-melting, head-banging metal rock! I was impressed. It was very clear that Stryper was influenced by the Holy Trinity: Ozzy, Priest & Maiden! What did you think that I meant a different Holy Trinity? :P 

Stryper came from Sunset Strip at the same time as Motley Crue & Ratt and were a part of what is called "The First Wave of Glam Metal". I think what really separates the First Wave from the Second Wave is that First Wave really made sure to put the Metal in Glam Metal. So I really shouldnt have been surprised that Stryper was committed to the Heavy Metal cause as much as they were the Christian Cause. "To Hell With The Devil" which is definitely my favorite Stryper album reinforces all those influence and not to mention Scorpions and Van Halen. I was tempted to write about that album, but I like the hidden gems. "To Hell With The Devil" is Stryper's calling card, if you know Stryper you have at least heard of the album. "In God We Trust", the 1988 follow-up, follows the trend of Glam Metal to lighten up the sound, this album relies more heavily on keyboards and makes Stryper sound like a slightly heavy Styx. It is a very ok album and then I heard 1990's Against The Law. I was hooked and I was like I got my next article. When I heard that Michael Sweet disowns the album basically after I listened to it, I knew I had to write about it because I love great albums disowned by the band. 

In 1990, Stryper were PISSED! When you are pissed, you can make some kickass rock 'n' roll. As you can imagine, Stryper took some serious flack for being a Christian Glam Metal band. Heavy metal fans were pretty merciless in mocking Hair Metal bands like Motley Crue and Ratt, they must have been 10x worse for a Christian Glam band. However, Stryper got it from both sides as there were a lot of modern day Pharisees in the American Evangelical movement that condemned the mixing of Christianity and the Devil's music, heavy metal. There were a lot of protests at Stryper concerts from these hardline nutjobs and Stryper just said enough! They are straightened their hair as was common at the time. They ditched the Yellow & Black garb for leather pants and the vests or big shirts fashionable at the time. Perhaps, most importantly, they stopped singing about God. Stryper went SECULAR on Against The Law. 

I have listened/read a couple Michael Sweet (band-leader) interviews and he repeats that Stryper is a heavy metal band comprised of Christians, not a Christian band. I do agree that there is a difference. I found most of the songs on "To Hell With The Devil" are not explicitly Christian but sung from a Christian worldview. I think "Against The Law" takes this further, but it is not like Stryper all of sudden did a Sleaze record where they are banging a three chicks a night and blowing a couple 8-balls. The songs are just about more everyday life. For Christ sake, the one big time party song "Not That Kind of Guy" (a very direct Van Halen speed metal song rip-off right down to ripping-off Michael Anthony's backing vocals) is about all the women that want to sleep with Michael Sweet, but sorry honey he is just not that kind of guy. You can't help but laugh at the role reversal and humblebrag of the song. No Stryper did not become Motley Crue or Slayer, but "Against The Law" is a refreshing change of pace from the "Soliders Under Command" and shows their versatility. 

I need to find a way to shorten up my preludes. You guys need to tell me to shut up and get to the music because this is a gem of an album. I would say Stryper has two really big strengths, one is Michael Sweet's incredible voice and the other is the twin metal guitar attack of Sweet & Fox. This album is definitely more of a vocally-driven album as it really shows off Michael Sweet's insane power and expansive range. He is screaming, shreiking and screeching all over the album like a Banshee from Hell erm...Heaven? Sweet has described himself as "Heavy Metal Dennis DeYoung" and while I can see that I think he sounds a lot closer to the Metal God himself Rob Halford especially in how he can do these full-throated screams with such power and conviction. 

I think the best song to really show off Michael's vocal prowess is the song "Two Bodies" . This song is proof that Michael Sweet is just as good as Halford or Dickinson. That may be blasphemy to some, but only the Gospel Truth comes out of my mouth. ;) Listen to how he sings "Together" tell me you don't get chills. I love how the chorus evolves. On the second go-around, he adds "Oh Yeah" after "Together" and "No, No, No" after "Stone" to fill everything out. The cherry on top is that he harmonizes "Never" at the end of the chorus for great texture. Then on the third refrain, he bring it all home when he absolutely lets it rip on "Stone". Holy shit, I just listened to it. What an awesome vocal performance from Michael and a great arrangement. As for the song, you will get tired of me saying but it was very Van Halen-derived. This song was definitely more indebted to Van Hagar-era. I love Van Halen, but I cant think of the exact song. It starts off with an acoustic intro and then abruptly stops and the electric guitar and drums kick in for extra oomph during the chorus. The abrupt stop is definitely cribbed from "Finish What Ya Started", but I feel like there's another Van Halen song that has similar loud-soft dynamics to this song. I would give credit Stryper credit on this song for those very loud-soft dynamics, which is something that is missed in their earlier rock the hell out of you approach. It shows versatility and maturity. Speaking of "Rock The Hell Out Of You"...

A lot of "Against The Law" sounds like mid-tempo Van Hagar, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Stryper come off as a big derivative, which I think is not true about the band. Stryper is not as innovative as a Van Halen or a Judas Priest but they definitely have a distinct sound. "Rock The Hell Out Of You" is distinctly Stryper right down to the playful Christian title that both works both ways. It is a speed metal song that absolutely melts where Michael Sweet screams his bloody head off. The beginning sounds like it could come right off the scorching hot Judas Priest Painkiller album (same year, same producer, incidentally). I think what really separates this from great speed metal and makes it unique is how Stryper leans into their glam influences and uses harmonized vocals on the chorus. You get Sweet screaming "We Will" like a fucking Metal God and then Oz & Co. singing "Rock The Hell Out of You" in a very full catchy way. The solo is a ripcord and Sweet comes back in all cylinder firing. If you like speed metal with a lot of really good screaming, definitely check this out. 

The other song on "Against The Law" that I think is definitively Stryper is "All For One", which is actually something I saw Michael Sweet say. Always good to agree with the bandleader on that. One thing that dawned me is that Stryper may have actually innovated American Power Metal and perhaps the Power Metal genre in general years before Helloween. Power Metal is an amalgamation of Dio/Blackmore's fantasy metal with the twin melodic guitar approach of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with big soaring vocals and large gang-choruses. Think about it, replace the fantasy lyrics with Christian lyrics and that sounds a lot like Stryper. "All For One" would not sound out of place at all on an Iced Earth album. This is the Arena Metal song that Halford was obsessed with writing trying and failing most famously with "United". Stryper knocks it out of the park because of how proficient they are at all vocals and they sound absolutely HUGE on the chorus. The "Tell Me" on the bridge to the chorus is just money.  The other trick is how good the rhythm section is. This has that Iron Maiden gallop/rumble to it that keeps the listener entranced. For further proof that Stryper was at least key if not the true innovator of power metal check out "The Way" on To Hell With The Devil for proof that Stryper did speed/power metal too not just the stomping arena anthems. 

Finally, my favorite song off "Against The Law" is "Two-Time Woman" that infectious gang-chorus immediately caught my ear and never let go. Stryper has a lot of kickass metal jams, but this song proves that Stryper can let their hair down and have some fun. I love that Oz is wearing a "Headbanger's Ball" shirt in the music video. I love the guitar work in this again it definitely feels more Van Hagar then their earlier harmonized Scorpions-esque leads. I think the gang-chorus sounds like Damn Yankees and shows their Arena Rock influences like Styx & Night Ranger. I think usually they take on a more glam-tinged gang choruses but in this case it is closer to the late 70s Arena Rock. I love how Sweet screams "Way" right before the blues-y solo from Oz Fox which is unusual compared to the rest of the album and the rest of their work.  

All in all, I really enjoy "Against The Law" and hope that people give it chance. I understand why the band does not like it. The pressure had gotten to them. They started drinking and many of their marriages fell apart. Michael left the band after the album. It must suck that the people you are trying to support were their most vocal critics. Out of that darkness, I thought they wrote a killer album, but I get why they wouldnt want to revisit those dark times. Even though more than not, it does sound very derivative of Van Hagar on most tracks what holds this together is terrific musicianship of Stryper. Michael is a helluva singer and guitar player. He & Oz rocked on this album and the rhythm section kept right up with them. Michael Sweet really got a chance to show off his amazing voice throughout this album, which is so powerful and filled with emotion.  So what they lacked in innovation they made up for in Spirit. :) 

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