The origins of Stryper are well documented. They were metal fans who loved the sound of bands such as Van Halen but didn't like their party all the time message, so they started up their own metal band to preach the gospel of Jesus. In the US, where Christian music is a huge industry, that seems to be an almost inevitable approach. However, I didn't grow up in the US. I grew up in England in the eighties, when metal was deeply unfashionable. Stryper, therefore had an odd sort of street cred, because they saw deeply unfashionable and raised, adding a whole other layer of unfashionable in Christianity.
I rather liked their early albums, but they got cheesier with time and I lost track of them by the time the eighties became the nineties. However, their name kept floating around, usually in a positive way, and so I checked out lead vocalist Michael Sweet's solo album at the tail end of last year. Not all of it worked for me but some of it worked very well indeed and I was similarly intrigued when I saw a new album by the whole band. And I'm similarly surprised, because this is easily heavier than I remember Stryper ever being.
They're still pushing the gospel, though they've found odd detractors lately; even Walmart refused to stock copies of their last album, God Damn Evil, which took the band aback. America is a strange place lately. Sweet's voice still has plenty of power and range and the choruses he sings are just as catchy as ever. Oz Fox is perhaps the most obvious reason why this is so heavy; just check out his riff on a song called Divider. Drummer Robert Sweet helps build this one but it's Fox's riff that punches us in the gut, like an early Twisted Sister number from Under the Blade. He gets a blistering solo too.
Older fans will recognise all three of those names. The Sweet brothers are founder members who have been with the band whenever there's been a band, except for a blip when Michael Sweet started a solo career. Fox isn't, but he joined in 1983 and never left, even taking over lead vocal duties from Sweet in that blip. Only the bass slot keeps changing and this is one of Tim Gaines's weeks off, so the bass here comes courtesy of Perry Richardson, the band's sixth bass player.
The impact of these songs varies. If Divider is the heaviest song, opener Blood from Above may be the fastest, really making a statement about what's to come. The softest may be This I Pray, a ballad with a southern rock edge and an awkward lyric; I have no problem with Christian bands singing in religious metaphor, but this sounds like a confession of guilt about performing oral sex and I really don't think it's supposed to. Fox is the saviour of this track, with another searing solo. I always thought Matthew Sweet led this band but I've changed my mind. It's Oz Fox's band now and Sweet sings for it.
The most interesting song lyrically is surely Make Love Great Again, which I'm interpreting as a dig at Donald Trump and his followers from a Christian band we might expect to support him. It's refreshing to see Christians in this country put their beliefs over party politics and, while I'm surprised, I have a little more respect for Stryper than I did coming into this one. Maybe we can make love great again if other Christians jump on board that message.
With Middle Finger Messiah wrapping things up like a mid tempo Judas Priest, I have to say that this was a lot better than I expected. It's heavier and often much heavier than I expected. I did expect it to be less cheesy than I remember Stryper being in the late eighties but it was even less cheesy than that and, while it's still overtly Christian, it's not annoying on that front at all. It's not entirely consistent but it's more consistent than the solo Michael Sweet album from last year. That received a lot of good press but Sweet impressed me more here, even if Oz Fox was the standout for me.
I probably shouldn't say horns ablaze on a Christian metal album review, even if the devil horns were to drive out the devil not to beckon him in. If I knew what the Christian equivalent was, I'd wish them that instead. This is decent stuff.