By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
Pinned against the doors in a slow-moving Brooklyn-bound 3 train on a recent evening, I found myself resorting to a sure-fire time-killer for what looked to be an interminable ride. Let's call it "sharing" reading material with an unsuspecting neighbor. And so there we were: She, a young, fair-skinned redhead engrossed in a worn copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, a century-old collection of lectures by Harvard professor and pragmatist William James; I, peering somewhat creepily over her shoulder and mindlessly following along on the page, my iPod coincidentally blaring Murder by Pride, the new album from Christian metalmen Stryper. How's that for a shared religious experience pregnant with variety?
And yet Red and I ain't got a thing on the self-proclaimed The Yellow and Black Attack. As far as religious experiences go, the bumblebees-from-the-O.C. have lived out a pretty unusual one. The good: They became the first Christian-rock MTV stars, racked up a platinum disc (1986's To Hell With the Devil), shared a stage with Metallica (the Dave Mustaine iteration, no less). The bad: They were mocked by the mainstream media, knocked by the religious press, even picketed by church groups. And then there's the flat-out bizarre: The colorful characters who have passed through Stryper's ranks over the past quarter-century include Randy "A Little Pitchy, Dawg" Jackson (who manned the bass for a hot minute in the early '90s) and original guitarist Bruce Johannesson, who quickly jumped ship, changed his name to C.C. DeVille, and joined Poison. Odder still are the individuals who circled their orbit, jumping into the fray of their own accord to argue the band's merits. (Surprisingly pro: Pat Boone. Vehemently con: Jimmy Swaggart.)
It's been a long, strange trip, to say the least. "We might have had a smoother ride if we'd been all about sexdrugsrockandrollsatan," singer and guitarist Michael Sweet acknowledges via phone from Cape Cod, his home since relocating from southern California in the mid '90s. "But God has done a lot of things for this band over our career. Incredible things." Sweet and his Stryper brethren—which includes his brother, drummer and band co-founder Robert—are now celebrating some of those incredible things on a 25th anniversary tour, for which they're performing two separate sets. The first leans heavily on the new Murder by Pride, Stryper's second studio effort since reuniting almost a decade ago and their return to form following 2005's Reborn, an awkward, largely unsuccessful stab at nü-metal modernity. Murder, by contrast, is all pop-metal sheen: buoyant riffs and twin-guitar harmonies on the fast tunes; sentimental, Diane Warren–style emoting on the slow ones; lyrics espousing true love—occasionally secular, but usually spiritual—on all of 'em.
Solid stuff for those who like this sort of thing, though on the anniversary tour, fans will nevertheless be more interested in what comes after the new songs: For each night's second set, the band is revisiting its '80s glory days, with the classic lineup intact. Which means audiences can expect the full treatment: yellow-and-black outfits, Stryper Bibles raining down from the stage, and plenty of positive-message metal.
"We've taken a lot of heat over the years for being corny and simplistic and over-the-top and cheesy—the Bibles, the yellow and black, all that," Michael says. "But as far as the message, we were always very direct. It was clear what we were about." Which, he points out, is not always the case with the newer generation of Christian-leaning bands—the tatted-up metalcore acts (say, Underoath or As I Lay Dying) and messianic modern rockers (Creed reunion, anyone?) who have followed in Stryper's wake. "A lot of the current groups, you don't really know what they're talking about sometimes," Sweet continues. "And I don't have a problem with that at all. But we were really different in the way we presented the gospel, so to speak."
As it happens, at the height of Stryper's late-'80s popularity, the band's fiercest opponent when it came to the way they "presented the gospel" was the same man who first brought the Sweets into the flock: televangelism pioneer Jimmy Swaggart. "My brother and I started watching him on TV when we were kids, and that led to our whole family going to church and deciding to live a life for God," says Michael. "And then he wound up being the one that led the troops in really standing up against us, holding up our records on television and saying, 'These guys are of the Devil.' And that hurt, because we respected him." Swaggart went so far as to devote an entire chapter of his 1987 manifesto Religious Rock 'n' Roll: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing to slamming the band, casting their music and image as little more than a brazen cash grab. "But not long after that, we all know what happened," Michael continues, referring to Swaggart's legendary public downfall in 1988 after being caught with a prostitute in a seedy Louisiana motel. "So you can't judge people. The Bible's very clear on that: When you judge, you will be judged."
Stryper's own fall from grace was just around the corner: For the 1990 album Against the Law, the band took a decidedly secular stance, dropping the Christian themes from its lyrics, ditching the yellow-and-black costumes in favor of a harder-edged look, and even dabbling in a little drinking and partying on the road. Within a few years, they broke up. "At that point in our career, we were just bitter," Michael says. "We had had enough of getting beat up on from every side, and we were angry. But the way we handled it, I felt like we had become hypocrites. I'd love to go back and play that part of my life over again, but you live and learn."
These days, Michael is unfazed by his critics, though he points out that "in some ways, we have it even tougher today. Now we have to contend not only with being a Christian band, but also being an '80s band." But perhaps there are new possibilities on the horizon. Last year, he dipped his toe into the secular music world, signing on as a singer and guitarist for classic rockers Boston; he has plans to record and tour with the band in the near future. And then there's Stryper's big-screen debut: Whip It, the upcoming Drew Barrymore–directed roller-derby flick, features Juno girl Ellen Page draped in an oversize To Hell With the Devil–era tour T-shirt.
"I heard about that," says Michael. "I suppose it could mean there'll a little bit of a resurgence in what we do. But I don't know—a lot of times when a band has a resurgence, it goes to this next level, like what happened with Aerosmith in the '80s. But with Stryper, it's always been one little thing here and one little thing there."
He continues: "Because of the Christian aspect, it sometimes feels like we're banging our heads against the wall. But we'll keep doing it, because we have the same goals and desires when it comes to the music and the message as we always had—to give people hope for tomorrow, to be a light in the dark. We want to give back to God. So we'll bandage up our heads and just keep going."
Stryper play the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza September 18