Way back in 1984 I was pretty much blown away by the Metal Church debut. David Wayne’s (R.I.P.) air raid demon vocals were one-of-a-kind and the slick, hooky writing and quasi-thrash energy really won me over. While their follow up The Dark was widely panned, I loved it almost as much as the debut. When Wayne packed off for greener pastures, I was loathe to accept the band without him, until they wrangled Mike Howe from Heretic and made stellar use of his leather lunged roar on the amazing Blessing in Disguise. I went on to love all the Howe era albums and struggled mightily to get into subsequent platters with Ronny Munroe standing in his stead. Now 23 years after he left, Howe is back for their 11th album, the cleverly titled XI.
The band he rejoins has certainly rough sailing since his departure, with 2013s Generation Nothing being a failed attempt to revisit their early 80s speed-driven style. It ended up their worst album (though I’m willing to entertain arguments Masterpeace deserves that honor) and things seemed to be over for the long running act. Could the return of Mr. Howe breathe new life into this old dog and help restore their former glory? Well, it certainly can’t hurt none!
Without knowing what to expect from XI, I was happy to hear the classic blue collar, hard rocking sound from albums like The Human Factor and Hanging in the Balance back again on opener “Reset.” Howe’s remarkably unchanged bellowing snarl is out in front of hooky, meaty riffs that walk a fine line between traditional metal and hard rock and it feels like old times all over again. This sets the tone for most of what’s to come as the band seems content to be themselves – sometimes going balls out and other times content to park and idle in hard rock loading zones.
“Killing Your Time” uses a mid-tempo chunky riff as the foundation for Howe’s pissed off, acerbic rants which have just as much bite as they did back in 93. The album “single” “No Tomorrow” is the most like classic Metal Church, sounding as if it was left over from Blessing in Disguise. “Signal Path” is a very addictive rocker with an interesting mood and hooky vocal patterns. “Sky Falls In” is also very catchy with a winning chorus and a cool, laid back charm. “Shadow” has the same slithering groove and swagger as “Hypnotized” off of Hanging in the Balance and “Soul Eating Machine” is the perfect fusion of angry, rowdy metal and hard rock accessibility – all attitude, piss and vinegar. Lastly, closer “Suffer Fools” is a wicked stomper with a punky Overkill/Anthrax feel.
The only song that doesn’t click is “It Waits” which strives for an ominous and dark atmosphere but comes across as languid and dull. There are some minor issues with song length and editing as well. Several cuts run over 7 minutes and trimming would definitely increase their impact (“Killing Your Time,” “Sky Falls In”). That XI runs just shy of an hour isn’t optimal either, despite the quality material.
The big surprises here are twofold: one is how great Mike Howe sounds after nearly 25 years out of the limelight. He’s lost none of the power in his mid-range and he can still dial up the venom quite impressively. He’s more than up to the task of supplying the necessary balls and attitude and he does an amazing job here. The other shocker is how good the song writing is this time out. I thought the writing quality took a big nosedive following Hanging in the Balance and most of the Munroe era albums felt flat and uninspired, especially Generation Nothing. This is the first time in a long time Metal Church founder Kurt Vanderhoof penned a consistently high quality album with songs that really dig in and lay earworm larvae. His and Rick Van Zandt’s riffing is simple but very engaging throughout, keeping the listener tuned in and fired up. I’ve always found Vanderhoof’s playing to be distinctive and classy and he demonstrates both throughout XI. Add in some slick drumming by Jeff Plate (Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and you have some genuinely badass playing from these grizzled bastards.
This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 and I’m thrilled it came out as solid as it did. XI is the best and most consistent Metal Church album since Hanging in the Balance and a welcome return to ass kicking form. Hell, they even managed to continue their unbroken run of truly awful album covers! If you love the older material, this should be a win, but any fan of traditional metal will appreciate what’s going on here. Welcome back from beyond the black!