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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Metal Church returns strong with the new album "XI"; featuring a look into the band's history

Here's something newer for change (from an old band). The following song below is from Metal Church's brand new album titled "XI" (available through Nuclear Blast since Mar 23th). An American band that started out leaning more towards thrashier sound, and has shifted more towards traditional heavy metal since then - but the new release is probably Metal Church's heaviest work for the long time. I'm sharing this song, and doing a little write-up, because I was rather impressed how good the new album sounds! Especially, Mike Howe's vocals, the man who makes his return to the band since his last album with Metal Church, "Hanging In Balance" was released 23 years ago in 1993; Howe who became the band's second singer after former vocalist David Wayne's (R.I.P.) departure in 1988. Howe's vocals on the brand new album sound as good, if not better, than in 1993, which is simply amazing. I've been Metal Church fan for a long time; mostly because of their earlier work, album releases ranging from 1984 to 1993 (buy XI from Amazon).

(Killing Your Time from XI album, 2016)

Metal Church isn't actually very obscure band, but they newer did rise into real stardom, either, unlike Metallica and Megadeth, for instance. The history of Metal Church dates back to 1981 when they released their first instrumental 3-track demo called "Red Skies" without a singer. The band debuted three years later in 1984 with full-length release "Metal Church" featuring line-up David Wayne (v) Kurdt Vanderhoof (g), Craig Wells (g), Duke Erickson (b), Kirk Arrington (d), and has been releasing albums on rather steady, though not so rapid pace, ever since. The album was released under the banner of "Ground Zero Records" label in 12" vinyl format (cat: GZ002) - the label which was band members' own "indie label" of the early days, if you could call it as such. The album remained "the label's" only release. Shortly after, Elektra records label signed Metal Church, and they would re-release the self-titled debut, as well as let allow the band to start recording the second album called "The Dark". Elektra (founded in 1950) was a sub-label of Warner Music Group, who at the time also had acts such as Metallica, Dokken, and Mötley Crue signed, so we're not talking about a minor records label.

Back in the day Metal Church was some kind of a cross-breeding of thrash metal and heavy metal band. I never considered them as pure thrash outfit at the time, compared to some other pure thrash acts such as Exodus or Kreator, for example; but they certainly featured a remarkably strong thrashy edge on their signature sound of the very early days, nevertheless. The band's first two albums ("Metal Church" (1984) and "The Dark" (1986)) were certainly the most thrashy and heavy, the most fast-paced material the band ever released up to this day - and not least because of the presence of their vocalist of the time, David Wayne, with his really vicious sounding, razor sharp and forceful vocals; the screams which would make your ears bleed, whether you liked it or not (I know I did!). A truly unique singer, who could sound sinister as hell, hitting those high notes or raspy mid-ranged notes by ease whenever necessary - one of my all time favorites. Wayne, who sadly passed away in 2005. Kurdt Vanderhoof, who was present in the first two albums as a guitarist, was another driving force for the band on those days, being a big part for creating their heavier signature sound of the early days.

(The rare "Red Skies" instrumental demo without vocals from 1981)

(Metal Church from Metal Church album 1984 feat. David Wayne on vocs)

Correct me if I remember wrong, but there was some personal frictions inside the band between it's members, which led Wayne to depart from the vocals after "The Dark" album was released in 1986; accompanied by departure of the formed guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof at the same time. Needless to say, that after such influential and unique musicians departed, the initial sound of the band would face a twist to another direction, though not completely so. The band decided to recruit a new singer and a new guitarist to fill in the empty shoes in the band's line-up, and take a slight chance in musical direction with their new album in 1989 titled "Blessing In Disguise". The new singer was Mike Howe, recruited from his recent band "Heretic" (US), who had released a fine album "Breaking Point" a year before, in 1988 (check it out if you dig Howe's vocals!). The former guitarist Vanderhoof was replaced with John Marshall, who had been doing some rehearsing with band called Blind Illusion (US) the past few years, and had been working as a guitar tech for Metallica's lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. Marshall had also filled in rhythm guitar duties temporarily in 1986 for Metallica's main man James Hetfield, when he suffered of a broken wrist. Marshall would form the new guitar duo for the band with the former guitarist Graig Wells, which would last until 1993. Though, I really love Wayne's powerful vocals, which fit the former thrashy material by the band perfectly, Howe was by no means less good choice for vocals for the new album, where his charismatic raspy vocals made perfect first impression immediately. Howe's vocals would build a new recognizable trademark sound for Metal Church; for the next four years, anyway - the years which I would refer as "the second era of Metal Church" - featuring a new distinctive sound different from the past. I don't think any power of the band's original sound was lost at this point, but the musical approach was rather shifted from the more thrashy and speedy sound to a more refined, yet powerful one; categorized more as pure heavy metal than thrash. The "second era" of the band would feature three full-length releases: band's third release titled "Blessing In Disguise" (1989), the fourth release titled "The Human Factor" (1991), and ending with the fifth release titled "Hanging In the Balance" in 1993 - sadly with Howe's departure from the band.

(Fake Healer from Blessing In Disguise album 1989 feat. Mike Howe on vocs)

A fun fact about Mike Howe, David Wayne, and Heretic (US): after his departure from Metal Church, David Wayne would form a new band called "Reverend", and record two full-length albums ("World Won't Miss You "(1990), "Play God" (1991)), plus one damn fine four-track EP ("Reverend" (1989)) with that band in the coming years. Reverend did consist of several ex-members of Heretic (US); the very same band that Mike Howe had arrived from to join Metal Church for Blessing In Disguise (1989) album recordings. I don't personally know "who stole who", but obviously through these changes, Heretic as a band was ripped apart and ceased to exist - with some of it's members joining Metal Church, while the others to Wayne's new band Reverend. While Metal Church took the more refined, straight heavy metal approach with their new line-up, Wayne would reach towards more thrashy direction with his newborn band Reverend, something similar than Metal Church had been doing up to The Dark album (1986). Now, this is just guess-work, but maybe Wayne and/or Vanderhoof wanted to go into heavier direction than the rest of the band, or they didn't get along? Who knows?

(Wayne with his new band "Reverend" after the departure, the first self-titled EP from 1989)

I always thought, that the driving force behind Metal Church and it's unique sound, dependent of the era, were always either of the two vocalists: David Wayne from the years since the first full-length album (1984) to the second album "The Dark" (1986), and Mike Howe from the third album Blessing In Disguise (1989), to 1993 until his departure. Metal Church, in the early career, always had powerful, unique vocalists which would make the bands sound easily recognizable from the masses. That's of course accompanied with the creative mastermind behind their riffs, guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof, who I felt was their most influential figure along with either of the vocalists. Vanderhoof, who was present in the band's line-up from ever since the earliest demos to the first two full-length albums featuring Wayne on vocals, departing shortly after the second album ("The Dark" (1986)) for a long time, until he re-joined the band with "Masterpeace" album released in 1999, and has been with the band ever since, also being featured in their new album "XI".

After six years of silence, in 1999, the new album called "Masterpeace" would mark the band's return to the heavy metal scene with their former vocalist David Wayne and the formed guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof. However, the album received rather mixed reception in the heavy metal press. The album which would remain the last ever with Wayne, who called his quits after the release of the album and went for a short-lived solo career (under the name "Wayne"), after which he would start working with his another former band "Reverend" again; until passing away in 2005 (R.I.P.). Something obviously didn't work out there as planned with "Masterpeace" recordings. Wayne would never return to Metal Church, the second guitarist John Marshall would also leave for good. I don't think personally that "Masterpeace" is a poor album per se, but the material doesn't come close being up to the par with their earlier work. Nevertheless, the album might be a worth of listen, anyway. It's enjoyable (in my opinion) and does feature Wayne's fine vocals, after all.

The conflict of post-Masterpiece era between Wayne and Vanderhoof: there was obviously some bad blood between David Wayne and Kurdt Vanderhoof; if not before, then at least after Wayne's second departure from Metal Church after "Masterpeace" album was released, when Wayne went to pursue a short-lived solo career under band name "Wayne". Why? Well, Wayne titled the album "Metal Church", and then pretty much copied the Metal Chuch's self-titled debut album's cover artwork (the "the crucified guitar"), and then included it as a part of his new album's cover. Controversies similar as this aren't uncommon in heavy metal scene after band line-ups change, and previous members feel that they've been such a big part of the previous band's sound, that the new band which sounds similar, should also feature something from the old band, such as similar name or symbol, for instance. Just think about Oliver/Dawson Saxon band (by members departed from original Saxon) versus original Saxon lead by Biff Byford (vocs), or British band TANK, which split into two different bands under the same name lately when some of the early TANK members since This Means War -days of the eighties, more accurately Cliff Evans and Mick Tucker, decided to continue using the band's name for the new albums with new singer Doogie White/ZP Theart, while the former TANK singer/bassist Algy Ward would continue using the TANK name under his solo career.

Back to Metal Church, this is what Vanderhoof had to say about the Wayne-Vanderhoof controversy, after Wayne's passing:

"I think every metalhead, and really any human being, shows respect and understands the sense of loss. As the guy (David Wayne) in Metal Church that has been there since the beginning...well...he did some shitty things at the end. You know, with that album called Metal Church and the album art and what-not. Is it easy to get past that now?" 

There was a lot of bad blood between him and I after that; mainly because of things he did like that. But nonetheless, that's why we did "Watch the Children Pray" for him, even though him and I didn't get along anymore. Still, when he passed, I didn't want anyone to misinterpret the fact that we were having troubles and we weren't getting along into thinking that I wished him any ill will." (Kurdt Vanderhoof. Metal Church Guitarist Comments On Feud With Late Singer David Wayne. 2007. Blabbermouth.

After mixed reception of "Masterpeace" album (1999) by the press, and all the line-up changes that followed the events, Metal Church would then go into more stable phase and release four albums starting from 2004 with a brand new vocalist Ronny Munroe, and have rather stable line-up, with only a few changes which would not affect the sound very much. The albums called "Weight Of The World" (2004), "A Light in the Dark" (2006), "This Present Wasteland" (2008), and "Generation Nothing" (2013) would feature rather distinctive sound, different of Howe or Wayne -era releases; certainly a bit more mellow. Each album is a worth to listen on it's own, but personally, I find this era slightly "bland" compared to previous level of superiority of musicianship and material (except perhaps "Masterpeace", that is). Similar driving force, power, and roughness doesn't just quite exist on these albums. Maybe Vanderhoof didn't just want to take quite as aggressive approach on guitar riffs than before, or perhaps the new singer Ronny Munroe with his Bruce Dickinson / Dio-esque soaring vocals combined with some lighter kind of roughness doesn't quite deliver the same power than Howe or Wayne did. Or perhaps it's the combination of the both things? There are definitely good songs existing on this era, such as the one below, so it's not to say that heavy metal fan should overlook the Metal Church albums released between the years of 2004 to 2013. The most remarkable line-up changes on this era would feature recruiting a new drummer Jeff Plate in 2006, who had previously done drumming for Savatage (Dead Winter Dead, The Wake of Magellan, Poets and Madmen); ex-Malice (US) guitarist Jay Reynolds would appear on Weight Of The World and A Light in the Dark, before being replaced by the current second guitarist Rick van Zandt in 2008, who had been working with American heavy metal band Rottweiler in the past. Van Zandt would form the new guitar duo with Kurdt Vanderhoof - the duo that can also be heard on the new "XI" album.

(A Light In The Dark from A Light In The Dark album 2006 feat. Ronny Munroe on vocs)

This gets us back to the this day. In 2013 Metal Church were supposed to call their quits with their current line-up, featuring their third vocalist, Ronny Munroe, at the time. That was until Mike Howe just recently re-joined the band after a couple of years of silence, starting a new era for the band with their new album "XI" - an album which sounds like the best, perhaps the most heavy work that Metal Church has put out ever since "Hanging In The Balance" hit stores in 1993! This is only my personal opinion, of course, but I ever felt like the albums released in the New Millennium without Wayne or Howe on vocals were "okay", but missed the final "punch". Now it does really seem that with "XI", Metal Church has returned stronger than in the long, long time.

The album's out now, so check it out!

(Metal Church in 2016; reunited with Mike Howe (vocs))

Tracklist for "XI" (2016):
1. Reset 03:54
2. Killing Your Time 05:06
3. No Tomorrow 05:08
4. Signal Path 07:12
5. Sky Falls In 07:01
6. Needle and Suture 04:38
7. Shadow 04:08
8. Blow Your Mind 06:28
9. Soul Eating Machine 04:41
10. It Waits 05:15
11. Suffer Fools 04:54
12. Fan the Fire 03:46
Total: 01:02:11

Kurdt Vanderhoof - Guitars, Mellotron, Synth
Mike Howe - Vocals
Steve Unger - Bass, Vocals (backing)
Jeff Plate - Drums
Rick van Zandt - Guitars (lead)

Metal Church discography (demos, EPs, & full-lengths):

Red Skies Demo 1981
 Hitman Demo 1982
Four Hymns Demo 1982
 Demo 1983 Demo 1983
Metal Church Full-length 1984
 The Dark Full-length 1986
Blessing in Disguise Full-length 1989
'90 Demo Demo 1990
The Human Factor Full-length 1991 
Hanging in the Balance Full-length 1993
Masterpeace Full-length 1999
 The Weight of the World Full-length 2004
 A Light in the Dark Full-length 2006
 This Present Wasteland Full-length 2008
 Generation Nothing Full-length 2013 
XI Full-length 2016

See also (David Wayne):

Reverend EP 1989 
World Won't Miss You Full-length 1990 
Play God Full-length 1991 
Live EP 1992 
The Spirit Remains Full-length 1993 (unreleased until 2015)
A Gathering of Demons EP 2001 
Metal Church Full-length 2001 

See also (Mike Howe):

Breaking Point Full-length 1988

See also (Kurdt Vanderhoof):

Vanderhoof Full-length 1997 
A Blur in Time Full-length 2002
Presto Ballet:
Peace Among the Ruins Full-length 2005
The Lost Art of Time Travel Full-length 2008 
Invisible Places Full-length 2011 
Love What You've Done to the Place EP 2011 
Relic of the Modern World Full-length 2012 | Tane Norther

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