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Monday, March 16, 2009

10 Must Have Albums - #9

- To Hell With The Devil - Stryper
Released: October 24, 1986

#9 It was early 1987 before I ever even discovered this album, and then only because the song "Calling On You" started getting played during MTV's phone in request show "Dial MTV". Many videos that normally would have only been shown sporadically became MTV standards due to this show, and "Calling On You" was one of them. Little did I know I would strike 80s metal gold by picking up this album after seeing that video.

To be fair, To Hell With The Devil may not even be Stryper's best album. 1985's Soldiers Under Command has a rawer sound. 1988's In God We Trust has a more polished sound, some even called it "poppish". Both those albums have some excellent songs, and I think from beginning to end, SUC is probably the strongest. But it was THWTD that put Stryper on the map, and that is the Stryper album I would say you have to have.

THWTD has elements of both SUC and IGWT. It is a perfect marriage of the two styles found on those two releases. THWTD took a distinct direction toward becoming more mainstream, as was the course of most metal acts. Most metal acts released hard releases early in their careers, and then with subsequent releases went more commercial in an effort to garner radio and video play. Power ballads also became common in the genre after the success of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian", and Stryper followed suit with two power ballads on THWTD.

Much has been made about Stryper's Christian theme. Christian metal it was dubbed, and Stryper remains the most commercially successful of all the Christian metal bands. There are many reasons for that, I believe, but at the root of that is the quality of the music. Well-written, played, recorded, and produced, no one could ever accuse the band of lacking talent. Michael Sweet is one of the most gifted vocalists rock music has ever seen. Robert Sweet is in league with other rock drummers, like Lars Ulrich and Rod Morganstein. Oz Fox is a very underrated guitarist.

The songs are first-rate. "Calling On You" is probably the most commercially acceptable, though "Honestly" is a great power-ballad that did well for the band. "Free" did well too although it was more of a video hit than a radio hit. All of the cuts are very listenable, catchy and, well, metal.

I was immediately drawn to the prospects of Christian metal once I realized that Stryper were a Christian metal band. Having always loved guitar oriented music, and being a Christian since the age of eleven, the marriage of Christian themes and rock music struck an immediate chord with me. I had always gravitated to the more clean cut bands, like Night Ranger, anyway. I was put off by some of the themes found in metal music, and what some of the songs in the genre were about. My parents weren't fond of my like of metal to begin with, so I had to be careful what songs they overheard from many of the bands I listened to.

That wasn't an issue with Stryper. Their message was positive. They were grounded in their faith and that came through loud and clear in their music. They weren't afraid to mention "God" in their music, nor did they shy away from espousing their Christian beliefs. This was refreshing in a genre of music that sometimes seemed Satanic at worst, and immorally heathen at best.

Stryper was smart about their music however. Some of their music, though based in Christian themes, could also stand alone as secular if the listener so chose. "Calling On You" is a perfect example of this. On the surface it could be taken as a love song, as in the listener is calling on the love of their life. The Christian listener could recognize the theme found in the song, but the non-Christian could interpret it in their own way.

Much like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis with their works of fiction, Stryper masterfully used their subtlety so that their music could reach a broader audience. But they still made no doubt of their music's Christian roots to their Christian fans by including the verse from whence they draw their name on all of their albums: Isaiah 53:5. They also were notorious for throwing Stryper jacketed Bibles into the crowd at their live shows.

Musically they were sound. Their message was positive instead of immoral and negative. Their image was clean, and while they looked like musicians, they weren't quite as extreme as other bands in the genre with make-up and tattoos. For 1986's To Hell With The Devil, and 1988's In God We Trust they were able to strike metal gold and become the biggest Christian metal band ever.

Unfortunately, 1990's Against The Law didn't use the same formula and the band saw their popularity wane. They broke up shortly afterward. Michael Sweet went on to have a solid solo Christian rock career, and Stryper reformed a few years ago and put out another studio album. It was a little too modern for this listener's taste, but the chance to see them perform many of their songs from the 80s live again was a welcomed development.

All in all, To Hell With The Devil is a must have album because the music is incredible, and the message is inspirational.

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