I wasn’t going to write about this or even tweet about it, because I know this subject matter isn’t for anyone other than the smallest niche. Forget music fans, hard rock fans, metal fans or even 1980s hair metal fans. The only people that care about Stryper are Stryper fans. The Christian-metal (yes, you read that right) band from Orange County released a new album earlier this month, No More Hell To Pay, and I can’t imagine even the band members were surprised at the lack of response. I mean, it’s Stryper. But I like Stryper, and I like this album. But that’s not important nor interesting. What is interesting is this: why is Stryper still around at all?
I don’t know why Michael Sweet and Company decided to put out a new record, but I assumed that at least 35-40% of the reason was need. The band was active from 1985-1990, stopped making albums until 2005, and have put out either an original album, a cover album or re-recordings in 2009, 2011 and two in 2013. The assumption I made is that Stryper could sustain itself from 80s success throughout the 1990s, and by the mid-2000s needed to reform or risk going broke. The barrage of records since their comeback (they’ve put out six, while they only put out four prior to 2005) tells me that either A.) the band feels they need to keep touring and churning out new material or B.) they’ve found that they really enjoy touring and churning out new material. I’m a cynic. I took Option A.
The idea that a decently popular band in the heyday of making money in music has to reinvent themselves bothered me. Keep in mind that Stryper is a Christian band; the chances of them blowing money on a luxurious lifestyle is super low. If you look at a few of their contemporaries – Ratt (two albums after 1990), Cinderella (none after 1994) and Extreme (one since 1995) – one or two hits in the 80s metal scene seems to be able to sustain life for its members. So this left only one possibility: boredom.*
*I realize there are a lot of other factors, one of which being that a Christian rock band is more likely to resolve differences than ex-junkies who made music together during a brief era of hedonism. However, Stryper is led by a frontman who seems to suffer from Axl-ism, and everything about their makeup would lead you to believe they are as well-designed to reuniting as every other 80s castaway. If anything, a breakup over creative differences AND religious differences makes Stryper a low candidate for making up two decades later.
One very common theme of the 1980s metal movement is the solo careers their stars moved onto in the 1990s. These then became spin-off bands, side projects and various sorts of bands created from the Heavy Metal web. Even low-level success from these projects coupled with residuals from the 80s could support an artist both financially and artistically, hence the lack of comeback efforts from the Ratts of the world (though almost all those bands at least tried once). Stryper is different in this regard. They came back to no fanfare, kept playing an outdated form of rock music and have not stopped. Not only that, but their 21st century efforts – as a whole – are actually better than their prime albums. Stryper is putting out solid 80s metal albums at a more rapid clip than they ever did when metal was actually cool, and they’re doing it in an era without the aid of MTV or rock radio. You could even make the argument that a lifestyle sustained from early record sales, coupled with absolutely no pressure at all has actually helped Stryper to settle down and crank out the records they were born to make. So this means that it is neither financial need or an ego-driven assault to regain popularity, since Stryper has spent the last decade recording albums that have proven to do neither. No, they are making music because they want to and because they can.
Even their fanbase doesn’t really ask for much. Motorhead has survived since the 1970s on no airplay or fear of criticism, but there is still a rabid fanbase they need to adhere to. If Lemmy puts out a “non-Motorhead” album, heads will roll. But what do Stryper fans ask for? All they need to do is make music that is somewhat reminiscent of the 1980s sound, and anywhere they work within those walls will be alright. That is a great amount of freedom artistically.
I’m not saying that Stryper is putting out the best albums ever written with this new found freedom, but it’s possible this is the purest string of albums you’ve ever heard. No More Hell To Pay is Stryper operating on all cylinders, and while you may not like it, you will find out if the height of the band’s prowess is for you or not. How many other bands can you say that about? Who knows how good The Doors or The Beatles or Metallica would be in a vacuum? Stryper is currently living inside of the vacuum. That, more than anything, is reason enough to give their latest record a spin.