Near Perfection: Michael Sweet Returns With Epic New Solo Album, “Ten”

There’s no escaping Michael Sweet these days. The 56-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist known primarily for his day job as the frontman of Stryper has been stepping out from behind the yellow and black stripes more frequently in recent years, resulting in an impressive expansion to his discography.

Over the course of the past decade, Sweet has spearheaded three solo albums, six Stryper albums, a two-album collaboration with guitarist George Lynch (Sweet & Lynch) and has even found time for a guest appearance or two as well.

“I definitely feel like I’ve been on a roll,” Sweet said in a phone interview with ListenIowa. “The flow is on high, and the faucet has been turned up. I feel like I’m doing more now than I did in the 80s.”

Sweet’s latest contribution is “Ten,” a new solo album scheduled for release in North America on Oct. 11 on Rat Pak Records. The 12-track album is a defining moment for Sweet.

Gone are the acoustic ballads (though technically “Let It Be Love” could be construed as a rock ballad). Gone are the sometimes-formulaic song structures that that have resulted in some of the latest offerings sounding a bit too …. familial. In their place, however, are some true hard rock gems.

Sweet is known for frequenting his social media accounts and asking for opinions on what direction his fans would prefer him to go with his next project. Whether or not the final tally ends up influencing the songwriting process can only be answered by him, but with “Ten,” it’s as though Sweet shut off that outside world and wrote with the passion and clarity that got him there in the first place. Because of it, “Ten” falls right in line with his efforts on the first three Stryper albums in quality. It’s that good.

Listen to “With You To The End,” “Now Or Never” or the chorus of “Shine.” It’s as though Sweet rediscovered the long-lost songwriting recipe from 1984-86. That recipe being an iron fist of hard rock riffs wrapped in the velvet glove of catchy, memorable choruses.

Sweet was smart in bringing new ingredients to his musical stew this time around, too, enlisting the services of Jeff Loomis (Arch Enemy), Todd La Torre (Queensrÿche), Andy James, Tracii Guns (L.A. Guns), Rich Ward (Fozzy), Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake), Gus G (Firewind), Will Hunt (Evanescence) and more. Each musician’s personal touch adds a welcomed texture to offset Sweet’s signature style.

Guns fits like a glove on the uplifting “Ricochet,” as does LoTorre on the monstrously double-timed guitar (courtesy of Andy James and Sweet) and vocal exhibition that is “Son Of Man.”

On the other end of the spectrum are the Hoekstra-powered “Never Alone” and the Sabbath-y “Ten,” both of which feature blistering, demonic-sounding riffs that sound as though they were faxed directly from hell (sorry, Michael).

Album opener “Better Part of Me” sounds like a cousin of 1986’s “The Way,” one of Stryper’s best songs to date. Thusly, “Better Part of Me” goes right to the front as well.

Is the album a perfect 10? The aforementioned “Let It Be Love” is slightly out of place. But that’s it. How close is it to a true “10?”

To steal a nugget from the man himself: God damn close.

Sweet sat down with ListenIowa to talk about the new album, his frustration with Sweet & Lynch, a Stryper Christmas album, and more.

ListenIowa: Is it still exciting to see the finished product with artwork and liner notes?
Michael Sweet: It is. It’s bittersweet, there’s bit of excitement, and a bit of frustration. It’s just such a different world these days. Back in the 80s, you wouldn’t release four or five songs ahead of time. You’d basically just do interviews before the release, and then you’d put it out. The album would have quite a life after that with touring, and two or three videos. Nowadays, it seems to be about the pre-album release, then the album is released, and it kind of dies. At least for guys like me. But at the core, it’s always exciting. What matters most is that I’m still sitting here able to produce and create music.

LI: It’s entirely backward, you’re right.
MS: I’ll release an album and a month later it’s like, crickets. There are reasons for that, but it’s just a different world. You go and work on an 11- or 12-song album, release it, and you literally go on iTunes and see the three songs that people downloaded and the other nine songs they didn’t. It’s such a weird world.

LI: I thought Corey Taylor was the hardest working person in rock, but you’ve overtaken him. You’ve been on a roll the past decade. Do you feel that way, too?
MS: I feel like I’ve definitely been on a roll. I’ve always been a writer, but it’s just that lately I’ve taken more opportunity, especially over the past 10 years. In the past, I might have had people come to me and ask if we could write together, and I’d tell them I’m too busy or whatever. Nowadays, it’s “Yeah, let’s do it.” Unless it’s something I’m not comfortable with.

LI: What did you turn down?
MS: In the past, bands would come to me and want to record, and I’d turn it down because we were on tour. I had a chance to work with a couple of big-name co-writers back in the 80s, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel comfortable or was nervous. Now I’m not as guarded. I go after things. If I get that phone call, I’m a lot more raring to go.

LI: You’re new solo album, “Ten” is relentless. There aren’t really any ballads, so to speak.
MS: “Let It Be Love” is kind of a rock ballad from the 90s. That’s the one song I’m playing the solo on. And I don’t know why, but I listen to “Never Alone,” and I kind of view that as a ballad in a weird way. I don’t know why. It’s a metal ballad. But it’s more in the ballad realm to me. I love this album. Each song is unique, but somehow it all works.

LI: The most interesting collaboration I saw on the liner notes without hearing a note of the song (“Ricochet”) ahead of time was with Tracii Guns. That’s not something I had expected.
MS: Tracii and I have become friends over the past few years. We did an interview based on our Eddie Van Halen guitars. We each have one. We’ve stayed in touch and have guested on each other’s albums. I thought “Ricochet” was the perfect track to have him on because it’s a throwback to UFO. We’re both huge UFO fans, so I thought it would be the perfect track for him to be on, and he killed it.

LI: I’d agree. It has a strong hook to the chorus, something that seems to be missing in a lot of today’s music.
MS: It is. I’m trying. I really do think about this when I’m writing songs. I’m trying to write songs with choruses that people think about and can remember. It’s hard when you’re trying to stretch out and do different things, but you can’t lose sight of things. You have to have something that people remember and draws them in.

LI: The little things in this album really help it. The dissonant-sounding riff in “Ten,” for example.
MS: Yeah, that song has a darker vibe to it. A little slow, Sabbath-y feel. And that’s exactly what I was going for. I knew I’d get some hems and haws on that song because people either want all “Son of Man,” or they want all ballads. I love how that song turned out, but it’s definitely a little different and the odd man out on the album. I love to throw those things on an album to shake it up a little bit so it doesn’t get stale. I’m not a fan of bands that release albums where every song sounds the same.

LI: The album closes out in strong fashion with “Son of Man,” where you team up with Todd LaTorre of Queensryche.
MS: I love Todd. He’s one of my favorite singers right now. And Andy James (soloist) is one of my favorite guitar players. He’s one of those guys I go onto YouTube at 4 a.m. and watch for four hours. I love his playing. I had to have those guys on that song. Their performances show that. They delivered, and that’s what took that song over the top. The track sounded killer, and then I sent it to them and then got it back. It was like a cake without icing, and then they put on their icing on it, and now everyone wants to devour it.

LI: How long did it take to put this project together, and was it easier or more difficult than what you thought it might be?
MS: It was easier in one sense, but then it was more difficult than not having collaborations. I tracked everything, got everything done, then sent those songs off to each person. I gave them markers, told them where to play, and then told them just go off on the solos; do what you want to do. Then I told them I needed it by a certain date. That date was maybe three or four days before we started mixing. And most of the songs came in ahead of time, some on that date, and a couple of them were coming in the day we were mixing that particular song. That was a little nerve-wracking. We were calling and texting. But it’s all good. It worked out. What was interesting was that everybody recorded with a clean guitar part, no distortion. And you’re talking about guys who are musicians, not engineers. But they all worked. We had to do a little EQing here and there, but everything worked out. Miraculously.

LI: Sometimes that happens.
MS: That was mind-blowing to me. I’m so thrilled with how it turned out. I can’t wait for everybody to hear it, and I hope they buy it as a whole. I hope they don’t just download the four songs that have been released and not listen to the rest. There are some really great songs and performances on this album.

LI: I may be out of my mind, but when I heard “Shine,” but I could have sworn I heard a bit of “You Know What To Do.” Am I crazy?
MS: (laughs) You may have. I’ll listen for that. With that chorus, I purposely wanted to do some interesting chord changes. The first half is straight-ahead, but then the second half is a little more interesting. It comes out of the minor into the major, which the Beatles were the kings of. I love the Beatles. I love the unexpected. That song is a perfect example of that. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album; it just makes me feel good when I hear that. Ethan Brosh is on that track. He’s a great, great guy. He teaches at Berklee now. He doesn’t have the name that the others have, but he should.

LI: What’s the status of your Sweet & Lynch project? You put out a couple of albums with George Lynch, but it for whatever reason, it seemed like George was never “all in” on it.
MS: I agree. I mean, call a spade a spade. That’s the world I live in. I get call an a-hole at times, but I’m a straight shooter. You ask me a question, and I’m going to answer it. I agree with you, and that’s why we’re not doing a third Sweet & Lynch album, at least at this point. There are no plans to do one, nor will we, unless I get the sense that George is all in. When I say that, I mean wanting to tour and getting behind the albums and Tweeting about it once. Or posting about it once on Facebook or Instagram. When I’m the only guy posting or Tweeting on a daily basis about an album that we collaborated on, that makes me sad.

LI: It does make you wonder.
MS: It didn’t make me wonder, it puts the dot on the “I” for me. That was a very frustrating thing for me. George was paid well, and he was excited. He delivered and did a fantastic job. I love George. I respect him so much, but if he’s not into it, he’s not into it. I’m hoping he’ll have some sort of revelation and look back and see that, in my opinion, those are two of the best albums he’s ever done. And that I’ve ever done. They’re great, especially the first one. We should have put together a killer band and gone out and done some shows. But hey, so be it.

LI: For sure. Time will tell.
MS: No pun intended. (laughs)

LI: Christmas is coming up. Have you and the guys in Stryper ever thought about taking “Reason For The Season” and “Winter Wonderland” and then adding a few more to make a Stryper Christmas album?
MS: I’m not going to say “if” we do a Christmas album. It’s “when.” We’ve been talking about doing it for a long time. We have to make that happen. That would be a crime if we don’t. I think it will be one of our best albums. It will be a hard rock/metal Christmas album, things we’ve already proven with those two songs. Those are cool, rocking Christmas songs that turned out really great. When we make a full-length [album], it’s going to be really great, but they aren’t any plans on the calendar right now. But when we do, it’s going to be amazing.

LI: Where do things stand in the world of Stryper right now? You did a recent interview in which you said Perry (Richardson, Stryper bassist) has brought the band peace.
MS: He’s brought so much peace to the band, man. We go out and hug each other, and laugh, and have a great time. There are no issues. He’s such a great player. We love him, and I think he loves being here. We’re working on a documentary right now over the next few years. We started on it and it kind of got halted and we had to make some changes, so we had to hire some new people to do that. We’re going to go live on social media soon about the documentary. We’re also wrapping up an acoustic album we started four years ago. We need to get that out there next year. In January, we’ll begin recording a new Stryper album that will come out next year as well. I’ve got the new solo album, and then I’m going to start work with Tracii Guns on a project. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I try to stay active and relevant and happy. I don’t want to burn myself out and become miserable. I’m still smiling. I love it.