Metal Church - XI Review

Metal Church - XI
Rat Pak Records

Ah, Metal Church. If Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer are the Big 4 of American metal, Metal Church is the near miss, the awkward friend stuck inside while the other four are out playing, the one that never gets the dates.

Despite releasing a trio of outstanding albums in the 1980s, the band’s future came unraveled due to a combination of bad timing (grunge), bad management, bad songwriting and lineup changes. So while others of their ilk soldiered on, seeing varying degrees of success, Metal Church came together and disbanded on more than one occasion, vainly trying to regain that spark which brought them to the edge of metal greatness. The death of vocalist David Wayne in 2005 was yet another setback.

XI is, as the clever among us can deduce, Metal Church’s eleventh album. Not many, considering their first was released thirty-two years ago. But after the release of the subpar and poorly received Hanging in the Balance in 1993, the band really only released five more albums in the following twenty-two years, none of which registered more than a blip on metal’s radar.

The Latest Album

This latest album will turn some heads, though, if for no reason other than the fact that standout vocalist Mike Howe is back in the fold, singing for the band for the first time since 1994. Vocalist on Metal Church’s two best records (1989’s Blessing in Disguise and 1991’s The Human Factor), as well as the aforementioned failure Hanging in the Balance, Howe’s presence brings instant curiosity, if not respectability, to XI.

Howe’s pipes may not be in quite the shape they were twenty-odd years ago, but whose are? He makes up for it with character, snarling through the eleven songs on XI with a villainous acerbity youngsters never try for. How much pleasure this brings the listener will depend on one’s enjoyment of the style; admittedly, it can wear thin, especially when the songwriting doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.

For the most part, however, the songwriting does stand up. Founding guitarist/composer Kurdt Vanderhoof has always written some sharp riffs, and XI fits right in with the band’s earlier output. A bit heavier, and thankfully produced in a modern but not overly so manner, the album sounds great when it’s cranked up.

The rhythm section of Steve Unger (bass) and Jeff Plate thunder through each song with machine-like precision, laying down a foundation for Vanderhoof and fellow guitarist Rick Van Zandt to churn out thrash-tinged riffs and old-school solos with abandon.

A Deeper Look at XI

Lead single “No Tomorrow” is a great example of what the rest of XI has in store for Metal Church fans, the up-tempo acoustic intro leading into a galloping staccato rhythm until Howe joins in with his sharp growl. A worthy cut, but not the best song on the album; stronger tracks are scattered throughout, including the following song, “Signal Path,” the longest and most complex piece on the record. Elsewhere, the fast, tight rhythms of the band are on full display on “Killing Your Time” and “Needle & Suture.”

Lyrically, Metal Church does not stray too far afield. Most songs concern themselves with the wisdom that comes with middle age, hitting rock bottom and (if one is lucky) bouncing back, and persevering through adversity. “Turn the page in my old age, now I’m at the final stage again. Now I hit the button to reset,” Howe snarls in “Reset,” and for the majority of XI it certainly sounds as if the entire band has done just that, the sharp, precise musicianship propelling songs forward with a ferocity that is admirable in a band that, yes, has, in fact, hit and passed through middle age.

The Main Issues

If XI suffers from anything, it is the same issue plaguing multitudes of releases in the digital age: length. Several songs on the record are toss-offs, specifically middle of the album cuts “Shadow” and “Blow Your Mind.” While eleven songs on the eleventh album is a cute coincidence, the corresponding 59 minutes are a bit too much. Eliminating the weaker moments would shorten the album, strengthening it at the same time.

For the most part, Metal Church do what they do best throughout XI, and that is quality '80s-style American metal with generous side helpings of thrash, and they do it fairly well. While the aforementioned weak cuts do detract from the album as a whole, the other three-quarters of XI stand up well. This may be album eleven chronologically, but it is in Metal Church’s top five in terms of quality. Welcome back, Mr. Howe.

(Released March 25, 2016, on Rat Pak Records)