STRYPER – Against the Law (1990 Enigma)
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, Stryper finally took the second biggest gamble* of their lives and dropped the overtly Christian themes in their lyrics. It was a decision they would quickly regret. Changing their lyrical message did nothing to help them sell records, and they found themselves without a record deal. They spurted out some new songs for a greatest hits album called Can’t Stop the Rock before Michael Sweet bailed and the band dissolved. In the liner notes to that album, drummer Robert Sweet states, “We were making a grab for musical freedom, but we never should have let that be misinterpreted as a change in our beliefs.”
Before the change, cynics accused Stryper of faking the sincerity of their beliefs in order to “cash in” on the “gimmick” of being a Christian metal band. Now that they had dropped those lyrics, they were accused of cashing in once again. There was no winning at this point for Stryper. No wonder the band caved in.
The shame of it is, fans in the know consider their 1990 album Against the Law to be among their very best. It earned a cult classic status with those who ignored the hype. The change wasn’t just lyrical, but total. Eager to reverse the musical damage of In God We Trust, Stryper toughened up their sound and got veteran producer Tom Werman behind the console. They also changed their image for the better. Gone were the massive hairdos and the yellow and black bumblebee suits. In were beards and goatees, and darker understated clothes. The stripes were still there in the stage costumes, but they were now gray and black. New logo, new start. Or not.
A thunderous new sound opened the new album — a funky heavy metal riff. No, this isn’t Extreme, it’s Stryper. “Against the Law” is a really cool shuffle with echoes of Van Halen too. The band were displaying a new toughness, and Werman captured a more appropriate raw sound from the band. Guitar-wise, Michael Sweet and Oz Fox are not content to just law down some solos, but instead leave jaws on the floor with their creative shreddery.
“Two Time Woman” is not the kind of song title that Stryper fans were used to see on their albums. This Motley Crue/Scorpions-ish rocker is strong but not a standout, despite its release as a music video. It’s just nice to hear Stryper rocking out with solid production behind them.
The next track “Rock the People” takes the album back to a funky “extreme”. It’s the lighter “Two Bodies (One Mind One Soul)” that really had hit potential. The acoustic guitars lull you in, but the chorus kills! “Two Bodies” gets my vote for best track on the album. It really is a shame that it never became a hit in this universe. Maybe on another Earth, where rock never fell to grunge….
“Not That Kind of Guy” is a blazingly fast Van Halen-style shuffle. David Lee Roth would have given his left nut for a song this much like his old band at the time. This kind of tune really reveals why Stryper were right to free up their songwriting a bit, if only for one album. This kind of music does not really fit spiritual lyrics all that well, so good on them for stretching out and writing a few songs like this. And listen to Michael Sweet’s scream at the end! Never before on a Stryper album had he let loose like that.
The big surprise of the album was the song chosen as lead single: a cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star”! In a 1990 MuchMusic interview, bassist Tim Gaines recalled that the song was suggested to them and the reaction was “‘Shining Star’? What the hell is that going to sound like?” Not bad, actually. “Then we ended up making a video for it, which I’m not sure how that came about,” said Gaines.
“Shining Star” did not grab me at all, at the time. Today I really find it fun and enjoyable. Stryper already had funky metal elements on this album, so why not cover Earth, Wind & Fire? I’d say they pulled it off in their own way. The only mistake was choosing this song as the lead single! Leading with “Two Bodies” might have given the hard rock fans at the time something more familiar to sink their teeth into, than an Earth, Wind & Fire cover. That’s Randy Jackson on bass for this track by the way — that’s one reason why it’s so dang funky!
A few songs ago, Michael Sweet claimed to be “Not That Kind Of Guy”, now he is saying he is just an “Ordinary Man”. This smooth mid-tempo track retains those classic Stryper angelic harmonies, but better arranged to suit harder rock music. Of course, every hard rock album needed to have a ballad. Rather than keep re-writing the same old piano ballads as they had been, Stryper went acoustic for “Lady” (not the Styx song). It was a good move, and a good song. It too had hit potential, but alas, it was not to be for Stryper. They were “Caught in the Middle”; so goes the next song. It is as close as we got to old-school metal Stryper. It’s good that they did not neglect that side of the band’s sound. Again, Sweet throws in some of those unearthly screams that he is capable of.
The sleek metal stomp of “All For One” sounds like classic Dokken to me, and that’s not a bad thing. It has the same dark, ominous chug that George Lynch is so capable of. No wonder Sweet & Lynch hooked up later on! The chorus kills it, too. Against the Law is ended by “Rock the Hell Out of You” which is about as preachy as Stryper get on this album (not very). It’s another killer speedy metal scorcher to go out on. Kudos to Robert Sweet on drums for being able to play like this!
I like stories with happy endings, so I’ll share this. Stryper has since reunited, heavier than ever. Christian lyrics and ordinary rock songs co-exist on the same albums now, and fans couldn’t be happier that they are back. The fact that their reunion-era albums are so damn good doesn’t hurt, either. If the story of Against the Law has a bright side, it is that it was a step on the journey to Reborn, Murder By Pride, The Covering and beyond.
*Their biggest gamble was trying to be a Christian metal band in the first place.