Believe it or not, Stryper actually faced a fair amount of controversy in their time. You’d think quite the opposite would happen, trying to shed some light into the dark world of heavy metal. Instead, some of their fellow Christians turned on them, spouting things about how Christianity has no place in heavy metal, and the likes. That all started with their swift and sharp debut EP The Yellow And Black Attack, introducing their stripe-drenched shtick topped off with massive hair and a slot right alongside their glam metal companions. They would dive deeper into that on their massive outlier To Hell With The Devil and its successor In God We Trust. But before that, we had Soldiers Under Command, a disc rooted heavily in traditional heavy metal, compared to other Stryper efforts. This is turning thirty-five years old, a great time to dissect it further.
What stands out so much about Soldiers Under Command is that despite its happier energy and push to sound righteous, the production manages to cast a sharper bite over the riffing. You can really get that right away, with the title track. Oz Fox wastes no time gripping your neck with crunchy buzzes played to a harder beat. But Michael Sweet’s voice is ultimately what brings these heavier digs to a more welcoming platform. His voice has always been very clear as well as concise, and the powerful falsettos allow the vocals to stand right alongside singing masterminds like Halford and Dio. You can even find hints of speed metal in “The Rock That Makes Me Roll,” another standout favorite of mine. This combo of clean but rough can make good metal efforts great, and it’s all over the place on this. “Together Forever” manages to let on pummeling drums near the end, showing Robert Sweet’s best abilities, and the screeching guitar wails that make-up the majority of the solos here are incredible.
I guess it wouldn’t really be a Stryper effort without super sugary ballads, though, would it? I’ve always been a fan of these, and thankfully they mesh well with the surrounding numbers. The obvious one here is “First Love,” an acoustic and piano-based ballad that slowly gains momentum without any kind of explosive eruption. The following disc would include “Honestly,” which pulls off that kind of balladry into powerful choruses slightly better. However, this one is a nice taste of where the band would focus their hit-writing energy later on. On the other side, you get “Together As One,” letting off the sweet (ha!) theatrics a bit, while still delivering a colorful piano base.
My favorite songs on Soldiers Under Command are where the balance between dirty riffs and soothing singing meet the closest. “Makes Me Wanna Sing” opens up on a single-chord blaster, letting in Tim Gaines’s basswork and harder drums to follow. But the chorus on this one is so smooth and soft that you’d almost wonder if it’s the same song. Harmony is the key ingredient to this, adding an extra push to Michael’s already powerful voice. “Reach Out” flips this on its back and uses a warmer intro, a very Hysteria-era Def Leppard vocal start. The repetitive aspect of this one holds onto that hook from front to back while letting the harder rhythms sneak into the cracks. Also, the solo mid-way through this one is likely the best, aligning itself with the chorus beautifully.
The first Stryper effort is pretty much perfect. The only thing that seems a bit unnecessary is the cover of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic (Glory Glory Hallelujah)” tacked onto the end. I let it slide, though, because it heavily signifies the start of the first huge Christian metal band to exist. Others like Bride, Barren Cross, Bloodgood, etc. would follow suit. Some of the lyrics certainly feel hokey, but if nothing else, this paved a path for other musicians of heavy faith to take a shot in the world of heavy metal.
Soldiers Under Command was released on May 16th, 1985, through Enigma records. There aren’t any in the way of recent reprints, but there are plenty of old copies in CD, vinyl, and cassette format, found here.