Stryper are forever doomed to be remembered for two things: their garish yellow- and black-striped outfits (based on both a Biblical quote — “By His stripes we are healed” — and on the apparently miraculous fact that a bumblebee can fly) (no, really), and the fact that the bible-thumping Southern California band are responsible for some of the schlockiest hair metal power ballads this side of Trixter. With a cunning sense of hooks and lyrical ambiguity, sickly sweet songs like “Honestly” and “All of Me” became huge hits among the secular set in the late ’80s. Perhaps a bit too huge, as the songs, intended as subtle expressions of spiritual devotion, wound up serving as soundtracks to clumsy gropefests among junior high couples. Part Bon Jovi, part Air Supply, Stryper’s keyboard-laden ballads have aged so poorly over the last couple decades, that they’re next to impossible to stomach today, which is a real shame, because most people tend to forget that for a very brief period between 1984 and 1987, Stryper could rock like nobody’s business.
In fact, Stryper were a damn, sorry, darn good band, with impressive melodic metal chops, and a real knack for ultra-catchy vocal melodies. 1985’s Soldiers Under Command became a real cult fave among metal kids (including the ones who didn’t even believe in Jebus), as songs like the Van Halenesque “(Waiting For) A Love That’s Real”, “The Rock That Makes Me Roll”, and the blistering title track were good enough to make the rather hackneyed lyrics about G-O-D forgivable. And for all the flak the bands’ ballads receive, 1986’s To Hell With the Devil packs an impressive punch, thanks to heavy stompers like “More Than a Man” and “To Hell with the Devil”, and the vastly underrated pop rock single “Calling on You”. By the time the disappointing In God We Trust limped into stores in 1988, Stryper were lost in a fog of synthesizers and cliched songwriting, and they proceeded to fade away from the public eye, save for those ballads, which were destined to play on retro music video shows forever.
So it’s understandable that the thought of a comeback album would be greeted with considerable trepidation; after all, most attempts by old ’80s hard rock bands to redefine themselves while simultaneously trying to cash in on the retro rock crowd usually yields mediocre results. That makes Reborn all the more of a shocker. Not only has Stryper pulled off the unthinkable, putting out a very solid hard rock album, but they’ve done it with their heads held high, pandering to no one. Trust me, I’m every bit as surprised as you are.
More rock than metal this time out, Reborn has the reunited Stryper (minus original bassist Tim Gaines) forgoing the blazing riffs of the old days, in favor of the more straightforward, open chord style that today’s emo acts use, and any notion that the band is deliberately “alternafying” their sound is rendered irrelevant once singer/guitarist Michael Sweet kicks in. The man is now in his forties, but his voice has not lost a step, sounding as powerful as 20 years ago, but thankfully without the theatrics he too often displayed in his younger days. He and the band prove they still know a thing or two about pop hooks, as nearly every track boasts contagious, soaring, instantly memorable choruses. The most aggressive track, “Open Your Eyes”, quickly gives way to more mainstream-friendly fare, highlighted by “Make You Mine”, “Rain”, and the rather superb “If I Die”, which, in younger, Hoobastanky hands, would be massive mainstream rock singles.
The band are still as religious as ever, and Reborn contains their most outspoken in their lyrical content since Soldiers Under Command, but despite their uncompromising approach, they don’t browbeat the listener. Yes, there are some very outwardly spiritual tunes, like “I.G.W.T.” and “The Passion”, but lyrics are tasteful and not syrupy, and the songs are so incessantly catchy, they’re good enough to win over the doubting Thomases out there. Anyway, if it makes you uncomfortable, just mentally replace the word “Jesus” with “baby”.
If there are a couple of drawbacks, it’s that they resort to silly Alice in Chains imitations on a few occasions (why, oh why do aging rock bands have to toss in lame, hopelessly out-of-date Alice in Chains rip-offs?), and drummer Robert Sweet, an ace percussionist back in the day, relies too heavily on predictable rhythms on a kit that’s tuned to sound like a bunch of pots and pans. In the end, these are minor complaints. While there are plenty of Christian-oriented hard rock and metal bands out there today (Norway’s extremely talented Extol being the best of the lot), it’s great to see the original Christian hard rockers return with an album that’s as dignified as it is enjoyable, one that will pleasantly surprise both the CCM crowd and secular listeners. Good on you, guys.