by Van Halen Kurtz
Looking for trouble? You found it.
Here comes an earful. First off, I know, there are so many unbelievable things in life, it's enough to make a believer of anyone. Do you believe in a love at first sight? If you don't, chances are good, you are blind, and that's no good. Second off, whatever happens, it's never too late. Never. Now, I don't know you, I don't know what your day today is, but if you're playing it like you've got a million more days to come, then you are wasting this day, today. It might be all you get. I'd suggest acting on that but, it's true, had someone told me that yesterday, I probably would have scoffed, and profligately. I'm not going to change you - words words words - but I do know this, if you are capable of changing yourself, bring it - and know you are receiving assistance. Third off, it's the assistance that is guaranteed - if you get your antennae up, way up, so far up over the clouds to the place where it's inconceivable that there could be anything but a love at first sight, then, my friend, you have found the trouble that changes you. It is worth the trouble. All you have to do, make today eternal, is believe.
Turn on the radio - morning noon or night - and you don't hear too many songs extolling the virtues of rent control, health benefits and job security. What are songs saying? The birds know - they cannot, for the life of them, stop singing. What is a love song? Well, that's interesting, isn't it? There's all sorts, right? Sexy ones, celebratory ones, wistful ones, heartbroken ones - but, for all the variety, it's usually about that one special lover. 750 million users, collecting faces like PacDots - but isn't it really just about that moment when you sigh and say, tremulous and incredulous, I found you. And, believe it or not, folks, that's why Stryper occupies a particularly uncanny spot in the "hair metal" genre - you know, metal with love songs. Now, when Poison sings "I Won't Forget You" it's true, or maybe not; they're lovin' 'em and leavin' 'em by the next track. Vince Neil can sing "You're the reason I'm alive" 'til doomsday but everybody listening is pretty sure he's referring to the cocktail in his hand. Now Sammy, when he gets his biceps on a love song, it sure sounds for real - but, then again, didn't he once love Van Halen? You get the idea. There's more than a little room for doubt with these cats.
There is no doubt with Stryper. And, sure thing, what is perplexing about Stryper is also their brightest quality - the only thing that sets me free is the mystery - that is, are they singing love songs to a woman - or is it God? Take your pick - or both? What could it mean is that itís not so easy to untangle when the guitars blare and the drums boom and your heartbeat starts racing to the pulse of undeniable optimism and unfathomable astonishment. Atonement with a Jackson Soloist, how cool is that?
Not that I could arrive early. Nor did I. Slow learner, day dreamer, presumed lottery winner, late bloomer - cursed with a laziness I so stupidly once considered a lavish inheritance. I wasn't good enough back then - and that's the truth. So I started late, but there is still time, the trains are still running, and better late than never - never is nothing, eternity is everything. Late in my case starts off safe, well that's what I figured anyway, so how wrong could I go if I were to pick up Stryper's covers album (The Covering, 2011), the one with Van Halen's "On Fire." How could I resist? If it was good, cool - and if it was bad, cool too. Of course, the "local music shop" laughed in my face - so off to the Family Christian chain, a plot to rot my mind. Yup, they got it and now - impending metaphor! - it's in my hands. Crank track one and, WHOA!, it's obvious why they chose "Set Me Free" instead of an obvious Sweet hit - "Call me a saint, that's what I ain't" - then, I gotta admit, Michael Sweet - get it? - can sing like a demon. Even though he did excise that particular original lyric. I'm listening, I can hear a pin drop, so bring it, sing to me.
The Covering has something to entice every head-bangin' taste. No doubt the song selection, rich with references to heaven and hell and, you guessed it, a singular avoidance of carnal bravado, was pursued ideologically - but, the main deal, it is assisted musically by the twin imperatives of demonstrating how killer Michael Sweet can scream and how awesomely lead guitarist Oz Fox can shred. These tunes are not for sissies! Examples - for Sweet, there is Sabbath's (Dio-era) "Heaven and Hell," the harmonies of Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son" and, no way, Zep's "Immigrant Song" to tackle; for Fox, there's the Murray and Smith assault of "The Trooper," an (admittedly easy) Eddie tune and Rhoades' deconstruction opus on "Over the Mountain" to survive. Stryper - let's make sure to mention the facile bass of Tim Gaines and the crushing drums of Robert Sweet - aces all challenges with an aplomb approaching grandeur. Plus then, they take every idiomatic trope and every superheroic posture already subsumed and surmounted, then mix 'em thick and kick out the jams with the CD closer, the original composition "God" (you didn't really think it would be John Lennon's advertisement for his own narcissism, didya?) and, with Mercuryesque vocals and Mayesque solos, it's the most staggering tune of the set. Of course.
Clever these testifiers!
Alright, maybe these lads don't smoke, coke or cat around, but they can rock. And, back in the day when MTV was the new national Top 40 Countdown, Stryper had the poofy hair, eyeliner and spandex to match. Exciting, especially if you were a Jesus Camp teenager in 1985 stuck in a mighty wind of righteous but musically undemanding Christian pop. But, endorphins ahoy, suddenly there's "Soldiers Under Command" with its shrieking vocals, brutal drumming, importuning bass, growling and wincing guitars, all arena reverbed and polished up with digital compression. Guitar solos! "We're not ashamed to stand up for what's right!" Tough guys! From the same album (Soldiers Under Command), there's "Reach Out" with its AOR chorus, squonking twin leads, defiant vocals and sharp thrust of snare. Then, something Stryper lived for, the big bombastic Eric Carmenesque piano ballad, such as "First Love." Cynics might say, and credibly, sounds like Styx, sounds like Boston, sounds like Journey, but such above-the-masses cynicism misses the uncanny added element- a passionate sincerity shimmering with positivity that corporate radio almost invariably extinguishes. MTV had its peculiar place then. And hearing Sweet bellow out "there is no love like the love of your first love" was - and is - proof enough that there exists, out there somewhere, a lover who will never lie, never stray, never let you go.
Right here, I'd like to interject the thought, that we, as people, emphasize, de-emphasize, generalize, particularize, isolate and project different portions of our persona each and every day when we interact with other people, who are doing the same, and diligently - but it is only with that one special lover we can reveal everything that is contained within ourselves, openly and in proportion. Who will be your one special lover? And who could possibly love all of who you are?
The all-important follow-up to Soldiers Under Command was To Hell With the Devil, released in the glam boom of 1986. "Rocking the world for you!" - for sure! A pulverizing Platinum record. "You've got the right to choose!" - with power chords, gang vocals, pummeled drums and gnarly solos, no problem. Album tracks like "More Than A Man" and the title tune channel the Crue, or, with the slicker "Free," a bit of Warrant, while the video hit "Calling On You" looks like Poison and, try not to succumb, sounds like Cheap Trick. Heaven. If I had any talent, this is the one I would cover. What's endearing about To Hell With the Devil is Stryper, however "hair," however tapping, however earringed, they keep a lot of the '70's power pop innocence at their side, on their side. Speaking of which, there's the power ballad video hit "Honestly" - the lads are as charming as you remember The Raspberries, and no doubt this is the exact moment REO Speedwagon got pinkslipped. Did I mention how utterly cute these guys are? The Lord often works magic in mysterious ways - but, in 1986, market-driven magic was Heaven-made for the big time. Sappy? Never when it's authentic. Some of these tunes are candy-coated scripture.
OK, now comes 1988 and it's In God We Trust, with some Queenian vocal harmonies on the frantic, albeit melodically underwhelming, title track. "Come To The Afterlife" has a cool slinky riff, a dash of percolating Foreigner keyboards, a lighter drum sound, a squeakier range for Sweet's lead vocals - and a chorus that ... well, it does have a theatrically bespangled marching quality curiously evocative of The Grand Illusion, which might explain why Stryper's numbers started dropping off on this album. Or - "You don't have to lose, you just have to choose" - it might explain why it's the greatest rock song recorded. Ever. Too bad about most of the album, though. Christian or demonic, relentless touring can really take it out of a band and, the writing's on the wall, In God We Trust comes across a bit tired, songwriting-wise and all the extra-wrenching performance exertions - they are playing all the way - cannot disguise that the hooks came up wanting. Time for a rest. Happens to the best.
Nevertheless, Stryper's fourth LP, Against The Law was issued in 1990. End of days for spandex spectacle. Working with producer Tom Werman suggested a redoubling of market drive, the absence of their defining Isaiah 53:5 yellow & black conveyed a sharp shift to the secular, and issuing - as the lead-off single! - a cover of of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star" (complete with video bimbos) evinced ... well ... that these guys were spending way too much time in hotel rooms. What else? Michael Sweet was still punching the ceiling, Robert Sweet was still gouging his drum-heads, Gaines was, well, still Gaines (totally fine) and, let's see, a ha!, Oz Fox, despite an obvious rekindled infatuation with wah-wah, hadn't neglected to stay up-to-date with all the latest stompboxes. They sing great! They play great! They're out of ideas! I mean, aw shucks, when a tune admonishes the backstage babes with a line like "I'm Not Not That Kind of Guy" - then nose-dives, rats, you can tell Stryper lost the sincerity that made them cut from a finer cloth than... Slaughter. And, later, they confessed, yes, they were losing it.
The love can be lost. You can be cursed, cruel, merely complacent or sorrowfully uncomprehending - but if the love isn't loved with every drop of the life blood, the life drains from the love. Time passes, and without meaning. The only gift wasted time can ever give is the realization that time can be wasted, everything can be lost - therefore the time to make a better person of yourself, to make a difference, to have your life make some sense, the time in which change becomes blessedly possible, cannot be any moment other than the one you hold in your hands, now - this very instant and all the other instants which follow from them. With sweet inexorable assistance - and believing.
So, then. 15 years pass, watch how fast time can pass unattended, and, open your eyes, now it's 2005, time for Stryper to return with Reborn. It's, no big surprise, kind of grungy, detuned guitars, attacking drums, super-smashed compression, but, have no fear, they're still intense for God. Michael Sweet still sounds like a man on a mission. Slick and sublime, "Passion" alternates between Badfingeresque acoustic verses and euphoric metallic choruses hollering all the way to the Gates. Man oh man, nobody can do this sort of music like Stryper. No one touches it. A Sweet ballad is nothing short of Holy. All of it - what is it? it is faith - is right there, electrified, digitized and sanctified. All the tracks are marvelous, brutal, and true - but "If I Die" merits special mention, not just because it smacks your gut a little harder than the others, but it takes a very inspired soul to sing these words with both the joyousness of a teenage rock & roller and the saddened sagacity of a grateful survivor:
If I die todayBut it gets better. In 2009, Stryper hips up to the "hair metal" revival and checks in with their entry, Murder By Pride. It's a riffaholic return to flashpot form - faster tempos, twin shredding, shrieking, ballads, and, where does the passion come from, rejuvenated melodies. The opening bars of the opening track, "Eclipse of the Son," sound like The Ramones - until Sweet pierces the sky with his undamaged glam scream, then Fox fires off a laser beam of Rockman euphoria, then it's kick, hook, soaring chorus, away they go! Next track - squonk fest, descending chords, phaser counterpoint, clobberation. Then they cover "Piece of Mind" - that's right, the Boston tune - and it's a mad delight. You know it is! Track four, look out, they break out the piano ballad, "Alive," and, check your blood pressure, fasten your seatbelt, blink your eyes - it's almost as squishy warm as Bread. Are these words getting through to you? I love you! I want to be the man, the one I know you see in me. "The Plan," "I Believe" and "Everything" are also stellar entries, pieces of wisdom, good 'ol fashioned radio rockers spun with that little extra telegraphic, telepathic scintillation of hope that only those who are complete can possibly possess - and unconditionally give.
I know I can say
I don't have one regret
'Cause I own your redemption;
As long as I breathe
I'll always believe
That you took this life
And painted it with definition.
Live it, give it. So, full circle, that's the Stryper saga, so far. There's more on the way, they say. Of course.
Now then. Still looking for trouble? I can love you, in a literary manner, perfectly - as perfect as words can communicate. And I can love you, as a human, with all the flaws a human will possess, along with all the human impulses to overcome my most human flaws, in the here and now. And, best of all, I can aspire to do both, simultaneously, with lofty thoughts and quotidian concerns - and a willingness to better myself with each intention, with every action. I know I will never succeed in anything unless I have the courage to fail in everything - except for the promise, surrendered at my own expense to live and love better with each and every try. This, and nothing less, I am prepared to do. For you - for you only. What is destiny? Believing in, and trusting, a first love at first sight is my first step - from yesterday to eternity. Even, or especially, on the wings of rock critic kryptonite.
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