Metal Church is one of those hard working second-tier metal acts that experienced moments of first-tier greatness over a lengthy career, but never crossed over to the promised land. Their debut is still one of my favorite thrash albums1, and Blessing in Disguise probably makes my desert island top 20. I supported them over the decades through numerous line-up changes, but the early albums with the late great David Wayne and then Mike Howe on vocals truly captured my Steely heart. When Mr. Howe returned after 20 plus years in limbo for 2016’s XI opus, I was thrilled. It was an impressive reunion outing too, sounding like the band I loved throughout the 80s and 90s. Now we get Damned if You Do, the all important second post-reunion release. Can these aged wonders keep the momentum going for a late career renaissance or must all olde things get olde again?
As the opening title track got under way I was hit with an interesting realization. The 2018 version of Metal Church still sounds familiar, but they’re also starting to sound a lot like another famous second-tier American metal act: Overkill. Mike Howe’s voice is getting a bit more rough and ragged around the edges, and when he really goes for it vocally as he does here, he sounds a lot like Bobby Blitz. I’m not complaining, mind you, as I love Overkill dearly. It’s just a bit odd to hear so much New Jersey attitude seeping into Church‘s music. The song itself is quite good with a big chorus reflecting the band’s early 90s era, and it’s still a joy to hear Howe back where he belongs, wailing away like a man possessed. Straight up, unpretentiously rocking cuts like “By the Numbers,” “Guillotine,” and “Rot Away” waste little time with foreplay, hammering with aggressive riffs and Howe’s raspy screeds. This is the sound of a band having fun instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or chasing the ghosts of the past, and it works.
The standout moment is the most unusual cut on offer – “Revolution Underway.” It sounds a bit like their classic number “Badlands” mixed with modern Queensrÿche. It’s just a little proggy but still anchored firmly in metal ethos, with churning, driving riffs and Howe’s snarly singing leading the way. The guitar-work reminds me of the early Fates Warning albums and overall it’s an interesting little jewel. The only song that misses the mark is “Monkey Finger,” which sounds like a wisely discarded Skid Row song from 1989. Angsty hair metal has no business on a Metal Church album, gents. Another issue is the production, which is a bit loud and compressed, but not enough so to ruin the experience.
Damned finds Mr. Howe in solid shape, his voice holding up well even as it ages and becomes more lived in. He can still project power and fury, and he sounds righteously pissed off on much of the material, which is a good place to be for the band at this stage of their career. Musically they also sounds tight and hungry, with founder and chief writer, Kurdt Vanderhoof and Rick van Zandt bringing a urgently minimalist style to their riff crafting. This keeps things simple and in your face, but at the expense of nuance and song diversity. They dot the album with some interesting solo-work and a scattering of minor prog touches, but for the most part they keep things lean, mean and linear.
There aren’t any surprises here, just Metal Church in all their humble, meat n’ taters heavy metal glory. Damned if You Do is a less diverse album than XI, and it’s definitely angrier. I’m enjoying it, but suspect it won’t have the staying power XI did as there’s less going on musically. Still, I’m happy to hear the band producing solid music and it seems Howe’s reemergence lit a fire under the band’s collective arse that isn’t fading too quickly. I won’t be expecting another Blessing in Disguise, but if they keep delivering solid output like this, I’ll be a satisfied congregation member. Get thee to the Metal Church.