Thursday, March 24, 2016


(c) 2016 Rat Pak Records

  1. Reset
  2. Killing Your Time
  3. No Tomorrow
  4. Signal Path
  5. Sky Falls In
  6. Needle And Suture
  7. Shadow
  8. Blow Your Mind
  9. Soul Eating Machine
  10. It Waits
  11. Suffer Fools
International Limited Edition Bonus Disc

  1. The Coward
  2. Blister Fist
  3. God Hit
  4. The Enemy Mind
  5. Signal Path (Radio Edit)
  6. Badlands (2015 Version)
  7. Shadow (Demo Version)
  8. No Tomorrow (Alt Mix)
Mike Howe--Vocals
Kurdt Vanderhoof--Guitars, Mellotron, Synth
Rick Van Zandt--Lead Guitars
Jeff Plate--Drums
Steve Unger--Bass, Backing Vocals

The new Metal Church album could have just as easily been titled The Return of the King, as it was XI, for with the return of Mike Howe to the lead screamer position, Metal Church once again sounds like the truly powerful metal machine they were on Howe's earlier efforts, Blessing In Disguise, The Human Factor, and Hanging In The Balance.  In fact, it sounds as if ZERO time has passed between those classic metal albums and this new one, as Howe sounds every bit as powerful...and teeth-gnashingly he always did, which is a big part of the success of this new record.

The album kicks off with "Reset", which is an aptly-titled track as this truly feels like a reset of the band back to the butt-whipping tenacity they used to employ.  Howe comes ripping right out of the gate, growling and yowling like a caged animal on a track that sounds for all the world like it could have been written for Blessing..., but not sounding tired or dated at all.  The thrash-styled drums, and the pulsating guitar rhythms set the pace for this barn-burner that also employs a blistering solo from Van Zandt.

"Killing Your Time" slows the pace only slightly, settling into a chunkier groove that lays the groundwork for more spits and snarls from Howe, who again, just sound so amazingly unchanged in his vocal style, approach, and range, that if I were a conspiracy theorist I would SWEAR this album was recorded twenty years ago and stashed in a vault somewhere on the Vanderhoof compound (which in my conspiracy theory-fueled world would have to exist!).  The guitars are a bit more hard rock than thrash in their approach here, but there is still plenty of sting in the delivery, and Van Zandt's blazing solo work is superb, as are the tempo changes and complex rhythms employed by drummer, Plate.  

At this point, it is simply excellence piling atop excellence, as the next several tracks are nearly perfectly written and performed Metal Church anthems of speed, rage, and power.  "No Tomorrow", again, sounds like it could have been written for the Blessing... album, employing a cool acoustic guitar intro before the machine gun-styled snare drums kick in, dragging a pulsating bass line and thundering double kicks behind in a metallic march that screams classic Metal Church, interrupted only briefly by an acoustic interlude that is shredded to pieces by the return of the drums and a short, screaming solo from Van Zandt.  Vanderhoof's rhythm guitars are also highly present here, setting the stage for a full-on metallic charge that Howe's vocals prod ever onward.  

"Signal Path" is a moody piece with some unique rhythms and tempo changes, again employing an acoustic guitar and a lot of hi-hat work from Plate before the rest of the band joins in on a track that has a bit of a "Badlands",  or possibly an "In Harm's Way" feel, hearkening back to the classic Howe-era work.  Howe backs off his snarl to actually sing in this song in a couple of places, again giving it another bit of that "In Harm's Way" feel that I loved so much back in the day.  The song may be a bit long for some people, clocking in at over 7 minutes, but how much greatness can you truly have?  Besides, if you want to save almost three minutes, you can get the radio edit of this song on the international bonus disc (more on that in a bit).        

"Sky Falls In" is catchy and quirky, leading in with a dark, intense guitar line, then joined by a bit of a jazzy, moody, rhythm courtesy of Mr. Vanderhoof and bassist, Steve Unger.  Again, the seven minute stretch is going to deter some folks, but this is a piece of music here, with different layers and textures, and not just a head-long charge through metallic madness, and is one of the most interesting compositions here as far as the way it is put together and built.  For me, this song is the pinnacle of the songwriting brilliance that flashes throughout this record.

"Needle And Suture" returns to the hard-charging riff rock with a nice, chunky rhythm guitar and a rumbling bass line that will have necks snapping and fists thrusting in the air as Howe unleashes his distorted air raid siren vocals to stretch syllables in some places, then drops down to a guttural growl in other spots.    "Shadow" reminds me a lot of the material on Hanging In The Balance, with "Hypnotized" being a very similarly styled track off that 1993 album.  Howe lowers his vocal approach to utilize a smoother vocal style on the first half of the slithery verse lines, then he rises back up up to employ his more familiar yowl on the second half of the verses, giving the songs a really nice alternating dynamic vocally, ending with a whispered "I am Shadow" to close the track.

"Blow Your Mind" seemingly emerges out of that whispered ending to "Shadow", creating a dark, haunting musical tapestry that slowly builds in force until the drums come thumping in and the chunky rhythm guitars settle into a mid-tempo cadence that again set the stage for some of Howe's trademark, acerbic vocal work.  Not my favorite track here, "Blow Your Mind" is still an interesting piece of music that has many of the hallmarks of classic Metal Church.

"Soul Eating Machine" again returns the band to more uptempo material, although it starts off with a slower guitar intro before jumping right into a swirling mass of metallic hard rock fueled by Howe's angry snarl.  This is yet another example of a track that has a very familiar feel to it, recalling the B-side of The Human Factor for me, although the cleaner-sounding guitar employed during the solo by Van Zandt is a more recent touch.

"It Waits" is an odd song here, as it employs a very raw, very stripped down song structure, creating something of an evil, haunting texture musically that for some reason reminds me a lot of what Metallica was after with "Until It Sleeps", albeit at an even slower tempo and with less obvious bass work.  Howe uses some vocal effects on parts of his verse lines, which I'm not really sure about, and the song never really builds any gut-wrenching power other than one long howl from Howe, which is what I kept waiting for.  It's not a horrible song, but it just feels like its missing...something...

"Suffer Fools" quickly covers up any flaws found in "It Waits", as the urgency returns to the guitars, a rolling bass line throbs throughout the track, and some true thrash elements return to the music, similar to what Anthrax and Megadeth employed on their recent comeback records.

The bonus disc is a nice addition here, as the songs here are solid but definitely don't fit the overall style of the main record.  However, don't think of the new songs here as "left overs" as much as they are simply songs that still sound like Metal Church, but maybe a bit more like Wayne-era thrashers and not the more progressive-styled thrash/American power metal that the band utilized with Howe.  "The Coward", for example, is a nice thick, chunky thrash rocker with some great attitude employed by Howe.  "Blisterfist" is a three-and-a-half minute instrumental thrash track that reminds me stylistically a LOT of 80s-era Anthrax in the interplay between the two guitars and the changing of the tempo and drum pattern about half-way through...only to go back to the original style once again (you'll know instantly what I mean if you hear it!),  

"God Hit" is a second instrumental that is much more musical and FAR more laid back stylistically than "Blisterfist".  It reminds me a lot of the more atmospheric-styled interludes that Metallica was using on ...And Justice For All, although there is some syth mixed in here by Vanderhoof.  For me, this is the only true throw-away on either disc, as it really does nothing for me.

"The Enemy Mind" is an uptempo, hard-driving rocker, but it fades out at about 3:00 in, so I wonder if it is incomplete, or if it was something the band had worked up lyrically but not quite finished musically.  There is a good deal of potential on this song, however, and I wouldn't be disappointed to hear a "finished" version of this track in the future.  "Signal Path" is presented again in a greatly shortened radio edit that cuts out nearly all of the intro to trim it to 4:29 in length.  "Shadow" is presented in demo form, but it doesn't differ greatly from the final product, to be honest, and is actually a bit longer than the finished version, and is obviously not mixed down or given that final polish of a fully produced song.  It is cool to hear Howe's vocals in this completely raw form though, as it is obvious that very little is done to retouch his singing on the final products; Mike Howe just sounds like Mike Howe, period, which is dang cool.  "No Tomorrow", which appears in alternate form here, starts off sounding a LOT like an early, aggressive Metallica song, especially when the acoustic guitar intro is left off, and when the guitars and bass kick in, you really do wish Metallica still made music like this...and you are desperately happy that Metal Church DOES make music like this in 2016!

I intentionally skipped over the 2015 remake of "Badlands" that was released to the public via the Internet when it was announced that Howe was back in the band.  To me, it is amazing how some things just don't change with age, no matter how much time has passed.  The band sounds so nearly spot-on here that it actually feels like they simply walked into a studio, said, "Hey, Mike...wanna jam?", handed him a microphone, and just jumped right back into 1990 rehearsals for a big tour, and "Badlands" was what they chose to warm up with.  It's just so perfect.  I dare say I like this new version better, but I can't pinpoint exactly why.  It is a slight bit more raw in production, and the bass is given a bit more attention, so perhaps that is what it is.  Regardless, it is not often a "classic" song like "Badlands" is given new life as effectively as Metal Church has done here with what is likely their most well-known song in their now 11 albums deep catalog.

The packaging is top-notch, as most Rat Pak products least my version is.  I have the Deluxe International Version, which comes with the bonus disc, a guitar pick, a nice booklet that is separate from the CD insert, three different die-cut stickers, and a cardboard slipcover that is autographed by the entire band, which is very nicely put together.  The CD insert has complete lyrics, including lyrics to the two new, non-instrumental songs on the Bonus Disc ("The Coward" and ""The Enemy Mind").  There are no band pictures in the CD insert or tray inlay, however, which is a bummer for some people, although there are a LOT of pictures in the independent bonus booklet.  That booklet also includes all the lyrics, but it also has a cool interview with Mike Howe, as well as the thoughts of the other members of the band about Howe's return to the band, about the making of the new record, and a BUNCH of photos, Internet memes, candid photos, production and writing credits, etc.  The booklet is very well done, although I would have rather had it in insert form, as the booklet is twice the height of a jewel case and I am not really sure where I will store it, to be honest!  First World problems, I know...

All in all, this is a truly amazing return from one of my favorite bands of all time, in both the David Wayne and Mike Howe versions, at least.  I own all of their other material, but honestly lost interest in the Ronny Munroe version of the band and had given up hope of a return of this type of music from Metal Church ever really happening to be honest.  The best thing is that here it is, only March, and already 2016 has witnessed the return of three of the bigger names in the American heavy metal/thrash metal scene, with Megadeth, Anthrax, and now Metal Church all releasing new material, and all sounding as good as...or better than...they have sounded in years!  Is there hope for other metal bands to follow up (ahem...Metallica)?  Time will tell, but for now, relish in the new material from the three bands listed above, with Metal Church standing at the top of the heap with my CURRENT album of the year for 2016!

Obviously, its only March so things COULD change...we'll see....

Rating:  Insanely crankable!  I want to give it a 10, but those are so rare, that I will stop at 9.5 for this amazing comeback record from a band that actually never least in name...

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