Michael Sweet thought he’d never see out of his right eye again. The detached retina the Stryper front man was dealing with just wouldn’t heal right. Meanwhile, guitarist Oz Fox had undergone brain surgery for tumors doctors discovered a while back, causing Fox to bow out of tour dates to recover.
But sometimes a band has to go through hell to get to heavenly heavy metal.
That’s what Stryper endured to forge The Final Battle, the Christian-rock trailblazers’ 14th studio set and an uncommonly good album for a band in their fifth decade. (You can pick up a special 2LP variant of the new album in our shop).
Instead of sounding like a band reeling, The Final Battle hits like a counterpunch uppercut. The album opens with “Transgressor,” a blitzkrieg track that sees Sweet unleashing stained-glass shattering screams. “Same Old Story” braids corrosive distortion and Styx-to-the-nth-degree melodies. Drummer Robert Sweet, Michael’s brother, and bassist Perry Richardson, formerly of “Don’t Treat Me Bad” hitmakers Firehouse, give closer “Ashes to Ashes” a stomp-and-shout groove. Icy guitar webs steer “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” Ditto “The Way, The Truth, The Life.”
“I feel like we made our strongest album, certainly one of our strongest albums, to date,” Sweet tells Metal Edge. “And that’s pretty miraculous considering how we had to make it. You know, sitting in chairs and not able to move our heads properly. I’m wearing an eyepatch and trying to play guitar. It was very odd. But we got through it and I'm super excited for everyone to hear this album.”
If all you remember about Stryper from the ’80s is the band’s yellow-and-black color scheme, God-positive lyrics and big ballads, there’s much more to their past and present.
The band’s 1986 album To Hell With the Devil is an essential classic from the Sunset Strip scene they rose from. The searing title cut probably had Beelzebub himself headbanging. Songs like “Free” display Queen-style vocal layers. And we defy you to be in a bad mood after listening to the anthemic “Calling On You,” a track that has melody for six days. And on the seventh day, well, you know. Other standouts from the band’s seminal years include the 1985 charger “Soldiers Under Command,” the 1988 sugar-metal “Always There For You,” and “You Know What To Do,” a cranked cut from the band’s ’84 debut EP The Yellow and Black Attack.
If anything, with The Final Battle, Stryper’s sound has become less pop and more metal. Not that you should expect death-growl vocals or detuned thrash. “Till Death Do Us Part” was born to light up car radios, only in this case SiriusXM instead of FM. Hey, it’s 2022, not 1988.
When Metal Edge caught up with Sweet on a recent afternoon, the singer was chilling outside his Massachusetts home and wearing aviator shades. Below are edited excerpts from our 30-minute chat.
Michael, after your experience making this new Stryper album, do you think the old cliché, “hard times produce good music” is true?
Michael Sweet: Well, I can only speak for myself. It definitely played a role in my outlook, having gone through what I went through. The seriousness and the situation with my eye, it had been detached for so long that my odds were pretty slim. And, you know, I started thinking about all sorts of things and having to write the album – I hadn't written it yet. By the time I got home and had surgery, I was thinking, Am I gonna be able to pull this off? And laying down for two weeks and then writing the album and then it re-detaching … Just going into the album with all these thoughts in your head, it played a big part. I was praying a lot more. It was just putting my faith in God like I always have been even more so and just believing like, look, we're gonna do this, we're gonna get through it. And we're gonna make this album. Everyone was saying, “Hey, you need to postpone it,” and I’m like, “We’re not postponing anything. We're doing this album. This is the time.” And we did it.
You write your songs about your faith. Do you think that gives you an advantage at this point of your career compared to some of your contemporaries, whose best and biggest songs were often about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, a lifestyle they can’t really live at this age and draw from anymore? Whereas the same subjects that shaped classic Stryper songs can still shape new ones.
Sweet: Well, that's an interesting thought. And maybe. But I would say the odds are that we were at a disadvantage and still are. Because we chose to sing about God, and we still choose to sing about God. It's just not what most rock ‘n’ roll fans expect, most metal fans expect. They want it to be about the silly cliches of sex, drugs and Satan. And for whatever reason if you're a metal band, “Oh, you gotta be singing about this and if you're not you're stupid. You're not cool.”
And it's just so silly. That's stupid and not cool, actually. I think Stryper, whether you love us or hate us, you have to admit we've stuck to our guns, and we haven't walked away from who we are, like many other bands have. And that goes for our sound, our look, our message, everything. We've stayed true to who we are.
And I think now people have finally starting to understand, saying, “I counted Stryper out in the ’80s. I thought they were a bunch of pussies, but now they're cranking out songs like ‘Transgressor’ and many of their peers aren't.” And you know, I don't have to say anything. We just let the album speak for itself. That's all we have to do.
Speaking of “Transgressor,” the new album’s opening track, the extended scream you do at the beginning of that song is impressive. Can you talk about getting a scream like that down on tape?
Sweet: Well, I tell you, brother, humbly, I say screaming in the studio is easy. Screaming live is a little more difficult because you get out on the stage, the adrenaline’s pumping, I've got a guitar on, I'm running around trying to talk and entertain the crowd. And then all of a sudden, the scream’s coming up and it’s like, oh man, I don’t have the breath to do that 16-second scream, or whatever.
I can still scream. I can still hit the high notes. But the trick is, can I do it live? Sometimes, yes, sometimes no. But I'm just blessed that I can still do it at all. And I'm very thankful for that, that I can still hit some of those high notes.
And I tried to pull off my best King Diamond on that one, you know? Obviously, I respect him as a vocalist. He's the king of that kind of stuff. And I'll always try to be true to myself. I'm Michael Sweet and have my own style, love it or hate, and I just do what I do and that was a fun song. I felt like that was if I was going to scream on any song and hold a note like that, it was going to be that song.
I hear a little Priest is your screams sometimes, too.
Sweet: Well, Halford is my favorite metal vocalists of all time, as he is I'm sure most people who like metal. He’s the biggest influence on me. I mean, Rob Halford really changed me as a vocalist. I didn’t used to scream, I didn't used to hit high notes, until I heard Rob.
And the first song I heard was [Judas Priest’s cover of the Joan Baez folk song] “Diamonds and Rust” from [1979 Priest live album] Unleashed in the East on the radio. My sister was taking me to school and dropped me off and I heard that and I’m like, “What in the world is this?”
After school, I went out and found the album bought it, listened to it. And it changed me as a vocalist. I started practicing high notes. I developed my upper register on my own. I didn’t go to a vocal coach for that. And I used to do techniques and try different things and I eventually built up and developed my lung capacity.
And that was based on Halford, and I have him to thank for that. Eventually, I took a few vocal lessons with Elizabeth Sabine but for the most part Rob Halford really shaped me as a singer. And I don't know if he would want to hear that or not, although Rob’s always been gracious to us.
How do you find the right balance of writing music that rocks while still having lyrics about God? When I hear a good Stryper song, like “Same Old Story” off the new album, what stands out first is the music rocks. But many other Christian bands’ songs, what I hear first is it’s overtly Christian.
Sweet: I think that has a lot to do with who we are as people. I'll get on the phone with some of my Christian peers and friends and they're amazing people but everything's about Jesus and “Praise the Lord, brother,” which is great. I'm not making fun of that. I'm just saying that's how they are as people.
Stryper, we’re guys that, we weren’t raised in the church. We were raised in Hollywood and then we became Christians. I think a lot of times, our Christian peers and Christian rock bands were literally raised in the church. So they present it in their own way where they pull out a Bible and they're preaching.
Stryper’s never really been about that. We just come out and do a rock show. When you see Stryper, it’s a rock experience but our lyrics talk about God. But it’s not done in a preachy way.
I don’t pull out a Bible, sit on a stool and start giving you a Bible sermon and a lot of our Christian peers do. And that's great. Again, it's that's not me poking fun at that. It's just how they do it and then Stryper does it differently and we always have.
And maybe that's why you’re able to listen to our stuff and get something out of it in a positive way but not in a preachy way. We do throw Bibles out to the crowd, but we don't beat people over the head with Bibles. So maybe that's the difference. I don't know.
Back when Stryper was coming up, which of those classic Hollywood rock clubs did you like playing at the best?
Sweet: Oh, man. Well, we played every club except the Starwood. We used to see Yesterday & Today and Quiet Riot and all these bands at the Starwood and wanted to play there, but there were issues going on at the time and then it eventually closed down.
But that being said, my favorite club and the one that holds the most special place in my heart would probably be Gazzarri’s. We played the Troubadour, we played the Roxy, we played the Whiskey, but Gazzarri’s is the one we played the most.
We were the house band many times with Mickey Ratt, which became Ratt, and we were Roxx Regime [before changing the band name to Stryper]. And I have a lot of memories of standing out in front with [Ratt frontman] Stephen Pearcy and Robbin [Crosby, Ratt guitarist], you know, smoking cigarettes and having a drink and then you go, “Oh crap, we're on in five minutes.” That kind of stuff.
Really cool times, man. I look back on those times and they were very special, because it was such an explosion of that style of music in the Hollywood scene. And we were part of it. So we were in the right place at the right time and we're very blessed to have been part of it.
From your time later on in the classic-rock band Boston, what’s something you took from singing those songs every night that you took with you after that gig? Brad Delp doesn’t get mentioned as much as like Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant when it comes to rock’s greatest singers. But he was amazing.
Sweet: Yeah, Brad's one of my favorite singers of all time. I’d put him up there in my top three. So for me to go into the Boston camp, off the heels of Brad’s passing, and the way he passed was tragic and sad and terrible. [Delp died in 2007 by suicide from common monoxide poisoning at age 55]
They asked me to come and sing at this show that was supposed to be their last show. At first, they asked me to sing a song called “Higher Power.” I didn't really know much about the song, and I was a little bummed because I wanted to sing one of their big hits, you know. And so I learned “Higher Power” and I just thought, okay, this will be easy.
And then I got a call from Tom Scholz, I was mowing the grass, and I was like, “What? Tom Scholz is calling me?” And he said that a lot of the singers that they invited weren't coming – Mickey Thomas, Ann Wilson, Sammy Hagar, and he asked me if I would step up to the plate and sing the songs they were supposed to sing.
So all of a sudden, I was singing “More Than a Feeling,” “Rock & Roll Band,” “Peace of Mind,” and that was a real “oh crap” moment for me. Like, happy yet nervous because I’ve got to sing those songs, some of the hardest songs to sing. Certainly, “More Than a Feeling” may be the hardest rock song to sing in the history of rock & roll.
I went and did that show. I went and learned all those guitar parts – they didn’t know I played guitar – and Tom was blown away. We were doing three-part harmonies, you know, Gary [Pihl, Boston guitarist], Tom and myself and he was really impressed at how the guitar sounded. And then I sang and sang it my way and he loved it.
And after that show, he asked me to join the band. And that was a real experience for me because my wife was dying of cancer. I was her caretaker. And here I am going on a tour which she insisted that I go on. But I went on a tour thinking like, why am I doing this? Like, this makes no sense. I shouldn't be home. And I felt the guilt of that, but yet we needed the money to pay for the medical bills. So I looked at it as more of a blessing in a way for us to pay our bill, you know?
So I went out and did a tour and all the fans accepted me. Each night was basically just celebrating the life of Brad Delp for me. That's all I thought about. And after the show, I would think about getting home. “One more down and 39 to go and then I’m home and I can take care of her.”
And that's pretty much what it was for me. I enjoyed it. I was blessed. But I almost knew that that it was going to just be a blip on the radar for me like it wasn't going to last. Because I was there to help Tom through his struggles, and they were there to help me through my struggles.
Outside of Stryper, you’ve worked with Tom Scholz, Tracii Guns, George Lynch and some pretty good guitarists on other projects. Who’s a guitarist you haven’t worked with yet you’d like to collaborate with?
Sweet: Oh, man. Well, one that I always wanted to work with and I'm so, so sad I never got to is Eddie. Eddie Van Halen is probably at the top of my list of guys that have been influenced me. God bless him. God rest his soul.
But in terms of other players that I could play with down the road, and I’ve played with quite a few guys on my solo albums and stuff, I'm a big fan of John Sykes. And Michael Schenker is one of my top three players. I don't even know if he knows who I am, but I know who he is. I would love to play with him. I love Reb Beach. Oh my gosh, there's so many guys out there that that I love and respect. And maybe time on earth will allow for that, where I can play with some of these guys.
Regarding Stryper’s trademark “Yellow and Black Attack” look: Early on did the band consider any other color schemes? Like was Stryper almost the “Blue and Black Attack” or “Red and Black Attack” or whatever?
Sweet: No, no, no. Not when we were first coming up. It was definitely always yellow and black because we were into the yellow and black road hazard signs. My brother started painting his [drum] kit yellow and black. I think that came from Edward Van Halen’s “bumblebee” guitar - that’s probably where it started, maybe even subconsciously. Eventually Rob started taping our guitars and varnishing them and making them yellow and black. All the cables, everything.
The only time we threw that all away was for Against The Law, which, again, stupid move. And we came back to the yellow and black because we're the Yellow and Black Attack, man. That’s what a lot of people know us as and referred to us as. It’s something we should never lose.