Metal Church – XI Review

The return of Mike Howe to Metal Church was some of the best news of 2015.

No disrespect to the late David Wayne, of course – he fronted the band on two absolutely great records, one of which is an undeniable classic, and then he later returned for one solid reunion effort. But Mike Howe is the best vocalist Metal Church has ever had. Howe sang on their best album, 1988’s Blessing In Disguise – and that one’s a second classic, a flat-out killer, a great crossroads of the band’s traditional metal balanced with the fire of the then-burgeoning thrash scene. If the gleeful stomp of “Fake Healer” doesn’t get your blood pumping, then there may be no hope for you…

After two more records, one great, one good, Howe left when the band split up in 1994, and for the most part, he vanished entirely. There were internet rumors that claimed he’d died, or that he was living in Tennessee, which is more or less the same thing. I can’t vouch for the Tennessee rumor – I live here and I never ran into him at any of our square dances or squirrel hunts – but he clearly hasn’t died. Either way, most importantly, now he’s back in his rightful place behind the mic, bringing life to yet another batch of Kurdt Vanderhoof’s masterfully written classic metal.

From the onset of XI, it’s readily evident that Metal Church is coming back at full strength. In many ways, opening track “Reset” is aptly titled – it’s a literal return, both for a long-departed singer and a briefly defunct band, and it’s the sound of all parties getting right back to business without missing a beat. Like the Metal Church classics that came before it, it’s all charging riff and soaring vocal, now as it was then, as it should be always.

And speaking of soaring, those verses do exactly that… They’re double-tracked, Howe high and Howe low, with a snarling chorus that ends up splitting the difference, and it all adds up to one of the strongest straight-up metal songs in recent memory. Oh, and then you back that up with the blistering “Killing Time”… and then with the swagger of first single “No Tomorrow”… and then with the catchy oddball melodies of “Signal Path”? Thank you, sir; may I have another? Oh, so then there’s “Sky Falls In”? Yes, please…

And of course, as great as it is to have Howe back, it’s not entirely his show here. Creatively, it’s the combination of Howe and Vanderhoof that makes Metal Church work; it’s the voice and the riff together, the singer and the songs. Vanderhoof has always written great tunes, and XI’s are as good as almost anything he’s given us. And sonically, of course, it’s the combination of all five players, none of whom save Vanderhoof were present for Howe’s first tenure. Vanderhoof’s production work is as solid as his writing – the guitars are stout and clear; Jeff Plate’s drums hit hard. (Vanderhoof’s graphic design is probably the album’s only stumbling point – but then again, Metal Church isn’t exactly known for great album art.)

Though they seem to never get the respect they’re due, Metal Church has long been among America’s greatest metal bands. They had some down years, culminating in 2013’s less-than-stellar Generation Nothing and their subsequent second break-up, but now they’re back, and they’re really back. XI stands strong enough to match with the band’s first run – it’s as good as The Human Factor or The Dark, not quite as great as Blessing In Disguise or the debut. And that’s damned fine company to be in. If there’s a better traditional metal record this year, I’d love to hear it.

Church is back in session, kids. Rejoice.

Posted by Andrew Edmunds

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; born in the cemetery, under the sign of the MOOOOOOON...

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