26. To Hell With the Devil – Stryper

TO HELL WITH THE DEVIL

Stryper

In October of 1986 I was managing Maranatha Village in Costa Mesa, CA. The Village was a very large and influential Christian bookstore with many employees going on to make major contributions to the Christian Music scene. The original editor and publisher of CCM Magazine worked at Maranatha Village where his monthly newsletter (Acts) eventually evolved into the famed and important magazine. Brian Tong, who managed the store right before I took over went on to form Frontline Records with Jimmy Kempner. Even Bob Siemon Jewelery got their start in the store.

The Village had built such a long standing reputation, especially in the area of music i was able to negotiate a “Pre-Release” party on a Friday Night with Stryper to reveal their new album, To Hell With the Devil. The album was to be officially released the following week, but it’s amazing what an order for 5,000 copies will do to bend the rules.

Being a christian Bookstore i had to order the product through the Christian distribution company, which was The Benson Company. When the several skids of LP’s, cassettes and CD’s arrived I opened them up immediately to a great horror. The wonderful, edgy and graphic album artworks shown above was replaced by a bland black packaging with a Stryper logo and the title in red.

I was appalled, especially since all of the promotional materials I received from the management company that I had become good friends with had the cooler cover and because i knew the Tower Records around the corner would have the better cover and I would lose sales, be embarrassed and have to answer to the thousands who would show up that night.

I immediately called a friends at Enigma Records, the bands record label, and she worked some deals behind the curtain so i could get the better cover at the event. Again, it’s amazing what 5,000 copies can accomplish. The better cover arrived the day of the event. We decided to keep both order and place them side by side at the front register so that anyone troubled by the graphic cover would have the alternative option. I remember selling about 100 copies of the boring cover that night while selling all 5,000 of the graphic.

I should note that the guys all showed up on time and stayed until every autograph was signed, which made for a very long night as the line went through the store, out the front door and nearly down to the end of the street.

“To Hell with the Devil” is the most important metal album in Christian music history for many reasons. First off, it is also one of the best selling records in Christian music history with over two million units sold. Second, the album was leaps and bounds above anything the industry had seen production wise. the sonic quality of THWTD is staggering. The songwriting is top notch for the genre, the promotion was unparalleled with several videos consistently being among the most requested videos on MTV and the record just flat out rocked!

After the ominous sounding instrumental opener, “Abyss” the album kicks into full frontal assault with the title track. What Stryper may have lacked in lyrical depth and theological precision they made up for with pure passion and zeal for the Gospel. In a musical form noted more for pentagrams, the “Devil Horns” sign and comic book occultic imagery, Stryper replaced with Bible verses, on stage prayers and this very anti-Satan anthem.

Speak of the devil
He’s no friend of mine
To turn from him is what we have in mind

Just a liar and a thief
The word tells us so
We like to let him know
Where he can go

To hell with the devil
To hell with the devil

The trademark dual lead and harmonizing guitars and overly sweet (no pun intended) backing vocals  are  a central focus on “Calling To You,” is a simple song of appreciation to God for the daily gifts and the eternal promises. The wonderful harmonies that finish the album are more akin to Styx than more traditional heavy metal.

“Free” drives things a little harder with a strong Gospel call appealing to the will of the listeners to receive the gift of salvation is Jesus Christ. It’s Oz Fox’s guitar work though that makes the song a stand out.

They sugary sweet power ballad, Honestly” follows. This is a Stryper trademark ballad and became the biggest hit in Stryper’s career. What sounds initially like a love song used in many a rockers wedding, is actually a song of commitment sung from Gods point of view. The formula many other glam metal bands would eventually follow are all right here in those song. Romantically pleasant piano intro for the first verse, light drums added into the second verse and big crunchy guitars and pounding drums kick of the chorus. Chorus ends with angelic choir backing vocals. Rinse and repeat.

But man, it works!

The key to being authentic rockers is that the ballad must either be the last song on the album or followed immediately followed by something fast and hard! “The Way” fits the bill just nicely and contains some of Michael Sweet’s edgier vocals.

The “Sing Along Song” possesses a more breezy grove while maintaining a strong rock edge. this is anthem rock defined. Limited verse structure and a chorus of exclusively oohs and aahs make for a vocal driven song with huge harmonies and a long time concert favorite.

“Holding On” is almost like a Beach Boys put through a meat grinder and fuzz box. Immediately melodic and fun. But it also contains some of Sweet’s better lyrics.

Everyone has been hurt before – love will come and go
When you put your faith in something so unsure
Never happy and wanting more – love will never grow
Till you put your faith in something that’s secure

I’m holding on to the One from above
The One that’s secure the one that has cured
My broken heart with perfect love

Despite the big hair, spandex pants, make up and theatrical trappings of the glam, big hair metal vibe, Stryper appears to be more influenced by the likes of Styx and Journey than Ratt and Poison. This makes for overall better songs, melodies and lasting results, especially for the more mid tempo songs like “Holding On.”

The more metal influence, though, does return on “Rockin’ the World,” which is at least fitting given the content. This song is all bout an “apology” for Stryper.

Never want to push you can’t you see
We just want to spread the news
In a different way
Rock the world but rock it with the truth

“All of Me” is the second power ballad project and this one really is more of a love song. In fact, despite “Honestly’s” popularity as a wedding song, it is “All of Me” that was written as a wedding song. This one lacks the bombastic bridge of most power ballads and works well as simply a love song. For that reason, it is also the most forgettable song on the record.

THWTD closes with a great rocker in “More Than a Man.” Strong vocals, great guitar work and a very direct Gospel message.

God, I will follow you because you died for me
Gave to me your life to set me free
Anyone who asks shall receive
Jesus in your heart
It’s time for you to start
Giving God all the glory

“To Hell with the Devil” paved the way and made the very popular metal scene in Christian music possible. Bands like Bloodgood, Shout, Vengeance, Deliverance and a host of others were able to expand the genre, but it was THWTD that knocked the door down. When CCM Magazine did their Top 100 countdown THWTD was the only metal album to make the countdown. This is partly based on the magazine and book editors true lack of understanding the genre, but it also pointed to the importance and durability of this great album.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. That album is great! I think “More Than a Man” is probably one of the coolest metal/worship songs ever written. Still today I get chills when the chorus comes around.

    Reply

  2. This album was just plain funny to me – not for the music, which was very earnest, heartfelt and appropriately loud. The outlying controversy that came up over the original cover, and when that was replaced with just the album title, and then the continuing controversy because of the font with the serpent tail, and then the “hit song” which clearly said they were in league with Satan. How else could they have had a hit?!

    It was riotous to see each side, both mainstream and the sanctified, roiling over this group of guys in mascara and yellow & black spandex. It was also quite sad, of course I came to that conclusion after the fact. That’s when it dawned on me that there was great and horrible truth in the cliche, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Reply

  3. Posted by Shawn McLaughlin on February 20, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    It was always amazing to me how much controversy this cover caused. When I was managing the music department of a bookstore, I remember regularly carrying bands like Mortification or Vengeance Rising whose bone and skull covers made Stryper’s look like positively benign.

    Reply

  4. I very surprised this release didn’t crack your top 10 or at least your top 20…. It was and is, as you mentioned, the best selling Christian Metal/Hard rock album of all time. It clearly had more impact than just about everything else on your list, just from the standpoint of historical importance and the ripple effect it produced. All 3 of the videos made heavy rotation on MTV at all times of the day.

    The fact that Stryper is still around today and touring shows a testament to their longevity and importance.

    Of course this whole thing is subjective and fun to discuss, but Stryper as a whole really had some of the largest impact only behind Amy Grant, Michael W Smith in their day….

    Reply

  5. Posted by paul on October 22, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Here’s a little bit of trivia. The first Stryper album “yellow and black attack” was yellow. I still have that one and like some of the songs but never quite got into that genre.

    Reply

  6. I have the THWTD Picture Disk its like #127 I think. When I was a teen had a long sleeve tee with the “Cool” Cover on it. I love that cover so awesome.

    Reply

  7. It deserves to be in the list for the cover alone 😉 – I love the artwork! Very good and high selling LP. The lyrics can be a bit embarrassingly simplistic though! Just compare them with the depth of the likes of Rez and Petra eg. Sweet has a very good voice but it doesn’t suit balads. That said, really good guitar work and many decent tracks! Christian music would be poorer with it!

    Reply

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