Heaven's Metal: An Oral History of the Genesis of Christian Metal

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Heaven's Metal

When rock emerged from blues and 'heavy metal' began to surface, faith-based metal acts also rose to start their own journeys. Initially shunned by both believers and non-believers, they were fighting for their spot at the table, ultimately building a legacy that would go on to change the genre forever. HM presents an oral history of the beginning of Christian metal music, featuring Guardian, Tourniquet, Holy Soldier, Whitecross, and, of course, Stryper.

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It’s hard for a new generation of metalheads to remember a time when their preferred genre didn’t have a deep-rooted network of faith-based bands as part of their preferred scene. In just the past two decades, bands like August Burns Red, Demon Hunter, Skillet, Norma Jean, Underoath, Fit for a King, The Chariot, The Devil Wears Prada, Zao — to name quite a few — have solidified Christianity’s influence as not just a part of but as a dominant force in heavy music. To Gen Y and Gen Z, this comes as no surprise; to them, some of the best bands in the industry have always been faith-based acts. So much so, it’s hard to imagine a time when that wasn’t always the case.

Walking it back, the 1970s and ’80s were a pivotal period in the history of rock music. Metal began to splinter from the tree of blues (Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, T-Bone Walker) to Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne and the Rolling Stones — which introduced us to the idea of “moral panic” — to more esoteric branches, including Mayhem’s initial foray into black metal, Judas Priest and Metallica’s public fights with the media, and, in the near future, when the hair would become bigger.

Christianity was grappling with a perceived war on culture, especially in regards to the ever-evolving universe of arts and entertainment. The Satanic Panic had pegged bands like AC/DC as the devil’s children, they were still selling millions of records. Heavy music had come to be affiliated with sex, drugs, and rebellion, and in a country with Puritanical roots, that rebellion came like fire. Naturally, the Church, then, struggled with accepting the genre; as the “illicit” connotation that metal music carried from its inception was embraced by groups with moral codes opposite that of the Christian faith, the sound of the music became synonymous with the sound’s associations.

The music was always loud, but quiet tides were starting to swell. Bands who loved the sound but lived according to a different code of ethics started to pop up and fight for their independence from the sound’s associations. The Jesus People and the Jesus Music eras of the late ’60s and ’70s started to bleed over into the metal ecosystem. Larry Norman and Barry McGuire. Petra and Agape. Resurrection Band and Servant. Acts arrived, and they fought for how Jesus could be glorified in this new, energetic expression of music.

And then? The metal thrashed, the glam glimmered, and the music evangelized.

Ted Kirkpatrick (drummer and songwriter, Tourniquet): “My inspirations growing up were Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; King Crimson; Magma; lots of prog stuff. And then, of course, the heavy stuff: the Sabbaths, Iron Maidens, all those type bands. I also had a huge classical influence. By that time, I had gone to dozens and dozens of classical concerts. My parents had season tickets to the Milwaukee Symphony, so they’d take me to the symphony. At a very young age, I became enamored with classical music and never looked back. Once I started writing in the band, I think more of that progressive metal part came out. I was ‘just a drummer,’ and there aren’t too many drummers in bands that write the music and the lyrics.”

Michael Feighan (drummer, Whitecross): “My Dad was in the military. He was Air Force. We moved all over the place. At that time, we had just come back from Germany and we were in California. San Diego. I was raised Catholic, but (in Germany) I met a guy and he helped me realize—he asked me a question: ‘Hey man, if you died tonight, do you think you’d go to Heaven?’ I was like, ‘Well, I hope so. I go to church every Sunday.’ He was like, ‘Man, you gotta know so.'”

Jamie Rowe (vocalist, Guardian): “When I auditioned for Guardian, I had just turned 20 years old and, two months later, I’m in a band. I’m 20 years old in 1990. Right then — from 1988 to 1990 — was probably the peak of the hair metal movement, the Sunset-Strip-L.A. thing. Flash forward to within nine months, Guardian plays our first show with me singing at Gazzarri’s and I remember thinking, ‘Van Halen has been here. The Doors were here. Ratt was here.’ I remember talking to the doorman backstage who had been there forever and getting the history.”

Holy Soldier, Sept. 1991

Holy Soldier, Sept. 1991

Andy Robbins (bassist, Holy Soldier): “I started off in this industry as a Neon Cross roadie. I was 16 years old. I was just starting Holy Soldier. We didn’t even have gigs lined up. We’re writing songs, and I was a guitar tech for Don Webster, driving Mike Betts’ drum sets to play shows and stuff. We would open for Great White and other bands.”

Rowe: “As a kid growing up in Indiana who would look at magazines and watch MTV and stuff like that, I loved Stryper. Loved all the hair bands. Loved Ratt, Poison, Warrant. Loved all that stuff. To get thrown right in the middle of that was really cool.”

‘Then someone gave me Stryper and I was like, OK, I get it’

Stryper was the forefather to what we now celebrate when we hear a metal artist grappling with matters of faith, justice, and spirituality. Contained within the hair spray and the gloss and the glam of the trends du jour, these metal pioneers took Jesus into the most unlikely of venues, from nightclubs to center stage in sold-out arenas. The metal world didn’t know what to do with them, but they were so damn good they couldn’t be dismissed. Stryper proved to the world that metal could belong as much to the church of God as it did to the church of Satan.

Recently, HM’s podcast, The BlackSheep, sat down with Michael Sweet to discuss his impact on the early days of Christian metal, his beginnings, the future of Stryper, and his acclaimed solo career.

Listen to “Michael Sweet: Stryper and Other New Music Projects” on Spreaker.

A couple of years after the devil was sent to hell by a group of dudes in black and yellow Spandex, a number of bands rose from the fertile soil tilled by Stryper. The genre began to blossom: Bloodgood, Holy Soldier, Guardian, Whitecross, Bride, Tourniquet, Deliverance, King’s X. Their presence had become nearly undeniable based on their numbers alone. Some made it to the mecca of hair metal and performed on the Sunset Strip, some with secular bands that would typically never affiliate themselves with Christianity. Others refused to share the stage with them. Either way, the genre of metal was being transformed in a way that no one could foresee.

Feighan: “I was in California and was playing with a couple of local Christian bands, and I got with this guy named Bob Hardy. He was the singer of a band called Servant. I had never heard of them, but they were around before Petra, and they had a pretty good run in the ’70s. He knew the management from Whitecross. (My band at the time was) playing prison ministry shows and some youth camps. He said, ‘Hey, my friend that’s the booking agent for Whitecross told me they’re looking for a drummer and bass player. I can put your name in.’ I thought maybe they were in California. And I was like, ‘Where are they from?’ and he said, ‘Chicago.’ And I was like, ‘Forget that’ (laughs). The bass player that joined with me, Butch Dillon, had family in Chicago, and he talked me into it.”

Robbins: “I enjoyed the whole ride of being a 16-year-old kid walking into a place like The Waters Club in San Pedro, CA and saying, ‘My band wants to play here.’ And they say, ‘Well, OK, but you need to sell 25 tickets. Do you think you can sell 25?’ I said, ’25?! We’ll sell 300!’ Then he gives you 300 tickets to pre-sell, and you go and get your whole church to back you and support you in selling every one of those tickets. When you do that, you never have to sell tickets again: This band sold 300 tickets. They packed it out on a Thursday night. Let’s give these guys carte blanche, whatever they want. Then you start playing two nights, Fridays and Saturdays, and then you go and you conquer the Sunset Strip.”

“We were obviously a Christian band. We weren’t trying to hide it or anything like that. We just changed our approach.” Jamie Rowe, vocalist, Guardian

Feighan: “I had a total transformation where I was like, man, I really want to use my music for God. I just didn’t know how. I would get these CDs — and now I really respect these bands — but somebody (gave me) a CD of Sweet Comfort Band. (At the time,) I was listening to Diver Down from Van Halen and I was like, you gotta be kidding me. But then someone gave me Stryper and I was like, OK, I get it.”

Robbins: “Later, it was about inviting (the audience) to come back to our house on a Tuesday night Bible Study that my mom held in my apartment. We’d have 50-60 people, maybe a dozen of them were at our show on Saturday. Sometimes they stayed and became a part of that big circle, and, sometimes, it was just planting a seed at one or two Bible Studies. It was a reason why we did it. It wasn’t contrived. All that came naturally.”

Tourniquet live in 1991 from Anaheim, CA

Robbins: “I remember meeting Doug Van Pelt (founder of HM Magazine) through an interview. He said, ‘What’s the easiest way that I can get all of you guys together?’ I said, ‘How about Tuesday night after our Bible Study?’ He called and did an introduction. I remember sitting in my mom’s bedroom on speakerphone with all the knuckleheads sitting there, goofing around, getting our first introduction to Doug before playing festivals and traveling through Texas on tours. He learned about how we were just a bunch of guys who might as well be brothers, who liked jumping off cliffs together and doing things together and sharing the Word together. We never would even consider going into a rehearsal without praying first or going on stage without praying first or making that invitation to somebody at the right, opportune moment.”

‘My hands are tied. I gotta cut you.’

Some consider it a death sentence, others consider it a blessing. The church won’t look at you and the radio won’t play. What happens when the world finds out you’re a Christian band? Success can make you and break you, but when that extra fight compounds the issue, 

Heaven's Metal Issue No. 31 featuring Tourniquet on the cover

Heaven’s Metal, issue No. 31, featuring Tourniquet on the cover

Kirkpatrick: “When it first came out — ‘Oh, they’re a Christian band’ — it was kind of a big deal. To be honest, now, nobody cares. When I say nobody, I mean other bands. There may be a few Norwegian death metal/black metal bands that have a member in jail for burning a church down (that might care), but I’m talking about 99% of the other bands. There was some pushback (from the public). We were supposed to play the Milwaukee Metal Fest, and one of the bands headlining was Deicide, who is actually one of the bands that claim to be Satanists and not in a gimmicky way. The same guy who was promoting the show was also Deicide’s manager. He said, ‘Ted, I love you, I love the band; we know we invited you guys here, but Deicide has said that if Tourniquet plays, they’re not gonna play. And I’m sorry, they’re the headliner. I manage them. My hands are tied. I gotta cut you from this year’s festival.'”

Rowe: “When I was younger with Guardian and with how we approached things, we were very in-your-face, so to speak, not real subtle. You didn’t really walk away from a Guardian show wondering where we stood spiritually. If you listened to a record, you definitely would ask, ‘Are these guys a Christian band?'”

Robbins: “Sometimes, we would use the stage as the pulpit and do an altar call at the Whisky a Go-Go. Then, you ask yourself, OK, that’s cool that you did that, and it’s cool that you got away with it, and it’s cool that some lives came to the Lord that night — but are you going to pigeonhole yourself from going to that next level (by doing that)?'”

Kirkpatrick: “I’ve never had a time when I’ve turned away from the Lord. Of course, I think, like all of us, we’ve had times where we don’t feel as close or we haven’t dedicated ourselves as close to our faith and to God as we should. One thing I’ve learned is that God is always, always faithful. We (Tourniquet) — I’ll just say me — writing the lyrics, the thought has never crossed my mind as to, well, should we back off on the lyrics about God? You know, maybe we’ll do a little better? Even when we were on Metal Blade. I have never, ever shied away from being completely proud of who God is in my life, and the lyrics will come out that way every time on every album.”

Andy Robbins of Holy Soldier

Andy Robbins of Holy Soldier in the early 1990s

Rowe: “We were obviously a Christian band. We weren’t trying to hide it or anything like that. We just changed our approach. We didn’t have an altar call, so-to-speak, or anything like that, but I would say something like, ‘Hey, if you guys want to hang out with us after the show, if you want to talk about music, gear, you want to talk about how to get to Heaven — we’ll talk about anything.’ We were who we were, and, artistically, that was rewarding enough because we were respected (as a band).”

Robbins: “In 1985 and 1987 and 1989 when we made our first records, as we were starting to grow, we would hear stories about how our record would come across a radio programmer’s desk and he’s like, ‘This sounds great! What is this?’ And he’d see the name and he’s like, ‘Ugh,’ and he’d throw it aside. Christian band. We already wore it in our moniker: Holy Soldier. We already put it right there in our lyrics. We wrote songs about abortion, we wrote some about the end of the world… Blatant, blatant, there’s no mistaking where we were coming from in our lyrics, and it’s no surprise that it resonated with the Christian audiences. But we didn’t say, ‘We’re going to hold out until we get the best Christian label.’ No, Myrrh (Records) signed us because it was a package deal with A&M (Records). A&M got one record in, and they didn’t know what to do with us. They gave it to Concrete Marketing. We got into Ripped Magazine. We got on Headbangers Ball.”

‘We played with serious fire that night’

Once the door was open, bands started to fly through it. Suddenly, an entire international market wasn’t just open — it was excelling. Hundreds became thousands became tens of thousands. The underground church movement had finally gone mainstream, but success can drive one man to his dreams and another to his grave.

Robbins: “Before our first album came out in 1990, we went to Japan and toured there with Guardian and David Mullen for five shows around Christmas time in 1989. That was the first show I had played outside of California and was actually playing it in another country. When you’re growing up and you’ve got posters of Iron Maiden and Scorpions and AC/DC on your wall… You’ve arrived when you’ve played Japan. You grew up listening to Cheap Trick live at Budokan and all that stuff. You read CREEM Magazine and Kerrang and Metal Edge.”

Feighan: “In 1991, Whitecross got asked to go to Brazil to play at what was called the SOS Festival. At this time, stateside, attendance (for our shows) was like 300-500, which, to me, was like, are you kidding me? Three hundred people want to come see us play? So we go to Brazil and they had bodyguards for us. I was like, ‘Do they know who we are? Do they think we’re somebody else?’ It was weird. It got crazy. We did an interview in a McDonald’s and I said, ‘Hey, I gotta go to the bathroom real quick.’ They said, hold on, and two bodyguards escorted me to the bathroom and they told everyone to get out. I’m like, ‘Whoa! Whoa! They can stay in there, it’s OK!’ (laughs).”

Rowe: “There was a time in Bogotá, Colombia in 1996. We played a show there, and, obviously, because of our Spanish records, we had quite a big audience in Latin America. But Bogotá was something else. I remember we got to the airport and they were driving us to the hotel. For some reason, everybody always says this: ‘Do you want to drive by and see the venue before we go to the hotel?’ They take us by the venue, this big arena, and, outside, there’s this poster of Guardian, like billboard size. ‘Uh, that’s where we’re playing?’ And it was sold out. It’s like 12,000 seats. Now, keep in mind, we’re (used to) playing in, like, Albuquerque. For us, getting 1,200 was like a slam dunk.”

Jamie Rowe, vocalist, Guardian

Jamie Rowe, vocalist, Guardian

Feighan: “I talked to the promoter and said, ‘So, we’re playing in a soccer stadium?’ He goes yeah, and I was like, ‘Do you think people are gonna show up?’ He was like, ‘Oh, Friday night we already got ticket sales: 40,000 people Friday and 60,000 on Saturday.’ I was like, Oh. My. Gosh. They had five Brazilian bands from the area playing throughout the day and then we were the headlining band. I remember walking out before going on. He brought me in the back to the top of the stadium and it was a sea of people. It was surreal.”

Robbins: “If I had money to wager on that first record, I would have told you we were going to be a lot bigger than we actually… We were not the best stewards of (success). The singer quit. Later, the guitar player quit. Rotated people in and out. We held it together, brought it all back together, did a second record almost equally as successful. We’d get out on the road and we’d just want to play anywhere and everywhere and do all the traveling and stuff. We’d be playing five nights a week. Most of the time, it was to full rooms or half-full rooms. Everyone’s in their mid-20s, they want to start getting married, their wives want to start having families if they are married. The pressures made it a little bit darker, but there was no change in our faith. If anything, our faith was strengthened. But I think the way we were going about it with our messaging, about what we wanted to share with ourselves, was changing.”

“It was almost like we wanted to start talking about that dark journey that we’d been on. We were still able to hang onto our faith in spite of the adversity.” Andy Robbins, bassist, Holy Soldier

Rowe: “So, we’re playing for 12,000 people in Bogotá, Colombia. I remember the pastor of a church down there coming backstage, and he didn’t speak English at all. He had a translator with him, went to us individually, and said, ‘The Lord has a message for you.’ And I’m not one of those hyper-Charismatic types, but I’m going to tell you: This guy told each of us things that he could not have known — and he was really going through it. Basically, without getting too personal and stuff, he was letting us know, ‘Guys, God wants you to know He’s there. He loves you. I love you, son.’ I remember that was a heavy experience. I think we played with serious fire that night because we were all on a high. We really felt like God spoke to us through that dude. You get this heavy spiritual experience, great concert experience, plus you’re in a 12,000 seat arena that’s filled (laughs).”

Robbins: “Forefront (Records) wanted to sign us. You turn around and you deliver another double Dove Award-winning record, but the lyrical content got a little bit darker. On Promise Man, we tuned down the guitars. We were heavily into Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and it stood out. It showed. We even recorded those records in Seattle. It wasn’t so much celebrating the ‘Stranger’ anymore, and it wasn’t so much singing about the hope of the last train that’s going to take us on to the afterlife. We felt like we had already done that, so it was almost like we wanted to start talking about that dark journey that we’d been on and why we still had our faith — in spite of other people who had been on that same journey at much higher levels and much lower levels of success that gave up and became atheists. We were still able to hang onto our faith in spite of the adversity.”

Ted Kirkpatrick of Tourniquet

Ted Kirkpatrick of Tourniquet in 1985

‘Well done, good and faithful servant’

After years of fighting for a seat at the table, Christian metal gave birth to some of the most talented musicians and songwriters in all of heavy music — they could live at the table if they wanted — and that success had unforeseeable impacts.

Robbins: “Spiritually, I had to sit there and look at those years of my life and say, ‘What did I learn?’ I could tell you a lot of doom and gloom about how I’ve been thrown out of half a dozen churches, asked never to come back just because of the way I looked back then. When you’re the pioneer of something — I mean, I can imagine Larry Norman before us. It was cool because we won the Dove Award for Promise Man, the album and the song. We had just recorded the “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus” Larry Norman track on that record, so we were there and Larry Norman was sitting next to us in the rafters. It made me think about how cool it must have been to be the real pioneer. We say we’re the pioneers because we plugged in distortion boxes and put earrings in our ears. (Larry Norman) was doing it a little bit more naturally and organically with his sound. I can only imagine how many times people looked at him walking into a church.”

Whitecross in 1993 on the cover of issue No. 39 of Heaven's Metal

Whitecross in 1993 on the cover of issue No. 39 of Heaven’s Metal

Feighan: “We were in the States. It was after the show; we would always try to make time to go to talk to people. Someone would say, ‘Can I get a pair of sticks, some autographed sticks?’ I was so grateful that someone would even want that, so I was like, ‘Yeah!’ So I’d run out of sticks a lot, and Rex (Carroll, guitarist) would get really mad at me because the next day I’d be like, ‘We gotta go get sticks.’ So this guy came up and he said, ‘Man, can I please get a pair of autographed sticks?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m really sorry. I have like three pairs left and we’re playing a show tomorrow night and the night after.’ I remember I had broken a cymbal. And it just came to my mind and I went and grabbed it and said, ‘What about a broken cymbal? I can’t use it,’ so I signed it and gave it to him.

“About 10-15 years later, he messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘Hey, this is James. I met you at a show back in, like, 1992 and you gave me this cracked cymbal because you didn’t have any sticks.’ I knew right away. He said, ‘I want you to know that I was really struggling with God at that time, and the fact that you took time to talk with me, I started giving God a chance again and I got back into church.’ Ten years later he tells me, ‘I’ve been a youth pastor for the last seven to eight years, and I want to thank you for God using you to steer me in the right direction.’ Man, I was a mess. It messed me up. I was in tears because it’s so humbling. That’s when you see how God’s working through the ministry.”

Rowe: “In this day and age, if I had to restart a band right now, I would probably do things differently. I had lunch with a good friend of mine who used to work for Guardian who is currently a Christian radio promotor. I don’t actively listen to Christian radio or even follow Christian media and stuff, but I never hear about these (new groups). He’s like, ‘Oh, they had a big song last year.’ The segregation of Christian music really became apparent to me. It’s like, in this day and age, just to be really great, don’t assign yourself to the Christian market unless you just want to sell to Christians. You can make a decent living doing that; that’s appealing on a financial level for people. But if you really want to make an impact and do something good and express yourself… With This is Home, I get to color with the whole crayon set, not just three colors that were given to me.” (Editor’s Note: This is Home was a solo album released by Rowe in 2019.)

Kirkpatrick: “Tourniquet is still active. It’s me on drums and then Aaron Guerra on guitar, who’s been in the band for 20 years. Our last three shows, we had Les Carlsen on vocals from Bloodgood. We never stopped. Tourniquet is not a nostalgia band. We’re not like, ‘Oh, back in the day we were this…’ We never stopped. We have albums out the whole time. Our fan base is still increasing, and I don’t ever want to be seen as a nostalgia band. Our last album was in 2018, called Gazing at Medusa. I’m working on the new album now, most of it’s written. Hope to have it released either very late this year or early January of next year.”

Michael Sweet, center, with Oz Fox of Stryper in Austin, TX in 1985

Stryper’s Michael Sweet, center, with guitarist Oz Fox in Austin, TX in 1985

Feighan: “Right now, it’s a five-song EP, and I’m selling that on my own. I have a friend here in Texas who has been in the music business a long time, but he’s done mostly, like, country artists; he was the manager for Three Dog Night way back in the day. We know him from church. He knows a producer named Rob Feroni who has worked with Joe Cocker. This guy has worked with the Stones, Bonnie Rait, just tons of artists. This friend gave him my CD and he liked it and another one, and he said, ‘I’d like to remix those. I’d like to try some things for you.’ Of course, I was like, by all means, please. I got them back, and it’s amazing what he did. So now, the next step will be finding a marketing plan and releasing it digitally.”

Robbins: “I spent a good probably 20 years since Holy Soldier just making sure what I do believe. What I do believe is important. Nobody can come in and tell me, after all these years, when I feel something in my heart that came from God that it’s not God talking. It’s that clear. It’s not constant. It’s the big stuff. I’m not afraid to wake up early and break away from my wife and go shut myself behind my door and get on my hands and knees and kneel before the throne and empty my heart out on a Thursday morning before I start my day.”

Kirkpatrick: “That’s one thing I can say, that since we’ve been faithful — from the countless letters, emails, messages we get — it’s had an impact on people’s lives. That makes me feel great. I think we all wish to hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ Not that we’re looking for that, but I hope Tourniquet has been a good example of never shying away from writing whatever’s on hour hearts about our faith, including the struggles and not just the positive stuff.”

Rowe: “I may have been louder speaking about God as a younger person, but now I know more. I have a deeper relationship, and I don’t feel the need to shout. You’re never going to hear anything I do on K-Love. I got to the point where I realized: I really need to be honest. I’ve been through a divorce. Life sucks. There’s also redemption, but why would I want to talk just about redemption when the sucky part was (actually) bad? I’m very proud of what we did in Guardian, and the fruit of that is evident to this day, but the person you saw on stage at Cornerstone in 1994 isn’t alive today. Someone who knows more and has a deeper love with my Savior is here. I can’t say God’s ever let me down. There’s always been Jesus.”

Heaven’s Metal: An Oral History of the Genesis of Christian Metal was posted on June 7, 2021 for HM Magazine and authored by .