Five stars out of five stars
Fresh off the success of Stryper’s latest, Michael Sweet unleashes his newest solo album this month. It’s his first album of original material since 2000’s Truth and it reflects all of the changes (personally and musically) he has experienced in the fourteen years that have transpired. Considering that Truth was actually released in demo form in 1998 it has been longer than that. Sweet has released a couple of projects but they were outside the of the melodic hard rock genre that he typically stomps around in. One was an album of traditional hymns and the other was a collection of popular love songs he recorded for his late wife Kyle.
Since then he has remarried and has pumped life back into Stryper. Beginning with 2005’s Reborn (which began life as a solo album), Stryper has recorded five albums and found themselves as part of a mini revival of classic Eighties hard rock bands. Their latest (No More Hell To Pay) is widely considered the best album they have produced since 1986’s To Hell With The Devil. It is no secret that Sweet writes the majority of songs that Stryper record, so one wonders what a new solo album might hold.
The first thing I noticed is that there are a few interesting guests. Tony Harrell (TNT) adds backing vocals to the opening track. Kevin Max (DC Talk) puts his unique (and immediately recognizable) voice on the moody ballad This Time. Stryper mates Robert and Tim play drums and bass on another ballad (How To Live). Professional wrestler (and Fozzy front-man) Chris Jericho adds his vocals to the hard rocking Anybody Else. Probably the most surprising (and impressive) guest spot comes from Dave Mustaine’s daughter Electra. Yes…THAT Dave Mustaine. Fortunately, Electra doesn’t have her father’s voice (or looks) and she bumps the quality of the Neil Young standard Heart Of Gold up several notches.
There is a good blend of hard rockers which would fit nicely on any Stryper disc. There are also the ballads which Sweet seems to have an uncanny ability to write. The surprises are the country-tinted Coming Home and the aforementioned Heart Of Gold. Both could easily be played on modern country radio if Sweet’s voice had just a slight bit of twang to it. There are two versions of the Neil Young cover, one without Electra Mustaine and then the one where she splits vocal duties with Sweet. Of the two, I prefer the one with her. It gives the song a little more variety.
Two tracks, Miles Away and Strong, are older songs that Sweet released as a single nearly ten years ago. The first is a mid-tempo rocker that is reminiscent of the hard alternative rock found on Truth and Stryper’s comeback album Reborn. Strong is a melodic hard pop (is that a real thing?) that is similar to much of the stuff Sweet has released on previous solo outings.
In this reviewer’s opinion, there isn’t a weak track on the album. I do confess that I have been a fan of Stryper since first hearing them in 1985 when I was a teenager. I have passionately followed their career my entire life. I even followed the many solo and side projects that the members have produced over the years. That being said, I believe that these songs stand up next to the best that Sweet has given us during his 30 year career.
One thing I do want to point out is that, in my opinion, Sweet does not get the credit he deserves as both a songwriter and musician. I know that there are studio guys filling out the album but he plays the majority of the guitars and his work is flawless. He could be one of those studio guys that people call when they need a killer solo or solid rhythm work. His vocals are among the best in any genre and his voice has lost little of its power or range.
My track-by-track breakdown:
Taking On The World Tonight (featuring Tony Harrell): The album jumps right out at you with this aggressive headbanger. Harrell’s shrieking vocals double Sweet on the chorus and give the song a bite. A Stryper-esque dual guitar solo only adds to the heaviness. This would have been right at home on No More Hell To Pay.
All That’s Left: This one is a mid-tempo rocker that sounds like much of Stryper’s recent output. Sweet croons over chugging guitars and then unleashes another killer solo.
The Cause: This is probably the most unique track on the album. It begins with subdued vocals over some sort of sample or loop before the guitars and drums kick in. It reminds me of the Truth album. It’s more of an attempt at modern rock. There is some impressive screaming over a choir of “whoas” right before the solo. The back and forth dynamics (soft vs. hard) make this a standout track.
This Time (featuring Kevin Max): I have already labeled this one a moody ballad and I will stand by that assessment. The strings (synths?) on the verses give a slight nod to The Beatles, but not in an overt (rip-off) way. Sweet’s voice is in top form here and Kevin Max’s pseudo-Bono crooning gives it a different vibe during the bridge. The first two or three times I listened to this one I wasn’t sure what I thought but I think it is becoming one of my favorites. Sweet’s voice makes almost everything he sings sound like Stryper, but this is one of the exceptions.
I’m Not Your Suicide: The first single (and title track) is an attempt to encourage those who are hurt and struggling with thoughts of ending their lives. It reminds me of another band but for the life of me, I cannot think of who. It does have a more modern feel but still has Sweet’s trademark vocals. I cannot say enough about the guitar on this album. Even when they aren’t jumping out and smacking you up side the head, they are doing interesting (and tasteful) things in the background.
Coming Home: My jaw didn’t drop the first time I heard this one, but I was taken back. I have heard a lot of Eighties hard rock guys try to do country-flavored rock. Most of them should not. While not a true “country” song, this one has the slide guitar and piano flourishes that lend to that vibe. If Sweet had played up the twang in his vocals, this one could break into that market…easily. Because it isn’t another Stryper type song, it is one of my favorites on the album. It makes me wonder what a full Michael Sweet country album would sound like.
Miles Away: This track is a bit older than the rest of the album and it breaks the mold for what a Michael Sweet/Stryper song typically sounds like. I rejoiced when Stryper reunited and released 2005’s Reborn. Tracks like this only reinforce the fact that Reborn began as a Sweet solo album. This one would not be out of place on that album or Sweet’s last true solo album (Truth).
Strong: I like it when Sweet writes ballads on instruments other than the piano. He does the keyboard thing well but most of those songs sound like Honestly clones. I really dig the acoustic guitars in the verse and the chunky electrics that pepper this chorus. He really has a knack for writing catchy melody lines that etch themselves into your mind. I repeat my belief that Michael Sweet is one of the best melodic rock songwriters…ever.
How To Live: This piano-driven ballad (see previous thought) is one of those songs that immediately brings Honestly to mind…unless you are a long-time Stryper fan like myself. In my opinion it comes closer to Together As One. While it probably wouldn’t be financially feasible (or productive) he could release an entire album of this stuff and be the king of power ballads. This one features Robert Sweet and Tim Gaines so it pretty much IS a Stryper song.
Heart Of Gold: I knew this track was going to be on the album before I heard it and I honestly questioned the logic behind it. I confess that I did the same thing when I saw that Stryper had recorded a version of Jesus Is Just Alright With Me. In both cases, my doubts were unfounded and I ended up being impressed with the results. Sweet’s take on this classic Neil Young tune is right on the money. It does have a slight country vibe but the heavy guitars and organ give it more of a Seventies rock vibe. This song is on the album twice. The first is with Sweet singing alone. The album closer is the same song with Dave Mustaine’s daughter Electra joining him on vocals. I believe she gives the song a little more depth and I prefer that version.
Anybody Else (featuring Chris Jericho): This track begins with a series of guitar chords that sound like Motley Crue. Sweet jumps right into it with a well placed “Ow” to add to the Eighties’ Sunset Strip vibe. I have to assume that this one is an intentional nod to that era and style of music. The always lovable (or annoying, depending upon your stance) Chris Jericho joins in on the chanting backing vocals. He has a couple of lines that show is a capable vocalist as well. By the way…the guitar solo absolutely burns on this one.
Unsuspecting: I love the opening riff and scream on this one. It makes me wonder if this was an extra track that had to get nixed from No More Hell To Pay. It is classic Stryper and showcases everything I love about Michael Sweet. Honestly, it leaves me wanting another Stryper album RIGHT NOW.
Heart Of Gold (featuring Electra Mustaine): Unless there are some minute details that haven’t jumped out at me yet, this is essentially the same track with Ms. Mustaine sharing vocal duties. Everything I said about the other version applies to this one…including my assertion that as good as it is…it is even better with her on it.