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Rank and File

Rank and File: Metal Church

Metal Church is a band that’s seemingly condemned to forever be caught in the middle. Their signature brand of heavy metal is too melodic to be called thrash, too aggressive for power metal and shunned by the mainstream altogether. Fortunately, this also means that their early efforts are rightfully seen as classics across multiple demographics. They’re arguably one of their generation’s most reliable bands, consistently releasing material despite a couple disbands over the years and never falling victim to the trends that brought down so many of their peers.

I’m gonna look at Metal Church’s twelve studio albums to see how they compare to one another and how well they hold up today. Metal Church has never been the most “out there” band but their working-class attitude is always endearing. Whether you prefer the late David Wayne’s mania or Mike Howe’s versatility (I’m sure somebody out there prefers Ronny Munroe but I sure haven’t met him), there’s a lot to enjoy in their near four-decade history.

12) Masterpeace
When listening to Metal Church’s 1999 reunion with original vocalist David Wayne, I can’t help but wonder who its intended audience is supposed to be. Longtime fans were likely excited to see him back on board, but the music is far more influenced by classic rock than heavy metal, forcing him to adopt an impishly awkward voice that sounds more like a confused Jon Oliva than his classic shriek. The songwriting isn’t that great either; “Sleeps with Thunder” is an enjoyable opener but songs like “Into Dust” and “Kiss for the Dead” aren’t strong enough to make up for their mismatched lines. There were bands doing worse than this at the time and it’d get a higher grade with appropriate vocals. As it stands, it’s the band’s biggest blunder.

Final Grade: C

11) Generation Nothing
History doesn’t repeat itself in the world of Metal Church so much as it rhymes. In a move that parallels Masterpeace, the band reactivated (again) in 2013 and gave Ronny Munroe the old college try before the impending reunion with Mike Howe. Thankfully the results here are far less awkward than that album. The musicianship is quite solid, and the songs are their most aggressive in quite some time. With that said, the writing is rather bare bones and there isn’t much beyond the title track or “Scream” clamoring for staple status. Fans should get into it but it’s not essential listening.

Final Grade: B-

10) Damned If You Do
With Mike Howe’s return proving successful on 2016’s XI, its 2018 follow-up is a decidedly comfortable listen. The basic template is about the same and the vocals are just as effective, though the songwriting isn’t quite as striking this time around. The hums and buildup make the title track a nifty listen, and “Out of Balance” manages to be quite hooky, but the other songs are conventional workman’s fare. What you see is what you get, which is still enjoyable though not as refreshing as Howe’s other efforts. Fans will stay content with it and I imagine it’ll still be this solid as time passes.

Final Grade: B-

9) This Present Wasteland
Sometimes when I’m lying awake restless at night, I wonder what the hell happened to Ronny Munroe’s voice between A Light in The Dark and This Present Wasteland. He had plenty of grit on the previous two albums, but he either pushed himself too hard on tour or went into overdrive when recording this album. It’s not a serious problem for the most part, but melodic songs like “The Perfect Crime” come out more ragged than they should. Fortunately, there are still plenty of great songs here; “Deeds of a Dead Soul” may be one of the band’s best late-era tracks thanks to its epic scope. It’s an enjoyable album but also easy to see why the band assumed it’d be their last one at the time.

Final Grade: B-

8) A Light in the Dark
Despite its redundant title (See, it’s The Dark but there’s a light in it this time!), Metal Church’s second Munroe-era outing is solid. It presents the band’s usual brand of melodic metal but does so with a noticeably darker tone. The title track is a surprisingly climactic number with hard-hitting verses and a sweeping chorus while “Mirror of Lies” offers one of the band’s stronger late-era speeders. The bonus re-recording of “Watch the Children Pray” was also a nice touch, done as a touch to commemorate David Wayne’s passing, and a lot more tasteful than the retreads that other bands like Megadeth and Exodus were offering at the time. It’s not a mind-blowing listen but I appreciate the vibes.

Final Grade: B

7) Weight of the World
Sidestepping the ill-fated Masterpeace, 2004’s Weight of the World was Metal Church’s first true comeback. Though only featuring guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof and drummer Kirk Arrington from the band’s classic run, the musicianship is vibrant and at its most energized since The Human Factor. New vocalist Ronny Munroe provides a strong balance between Howe’s melodicism and Wayne’s grit and there are strong tracks on here. The anthemic “Hero’s Soul” may be the most underrated song of the band’s post-classic era, “Madman’s Overture” is one of the band’s better long songs, and “Sunless Sky” is a contemplative winner. It loses some momentum in the second half but it’s a very underrated album that set a quality metric for what I’ve always seen as ‘my’ Metal Church era.

Final Grade: B+

6) XI
With Mike Howe dropping off the face of the earth after his initial run with Metal Church, it was quite shocking to see him return to the band over twenty years later. Shock turned to elation as his voice had endured through the years and sounded just as good as it had back in the day. Of course, a band can’t get by on a good voice alone and XI is a refreshing listen. Elements from The Human Factor and Hanging in the Balance are out in full force but never feel played out. “Sky Falls In” is a surprisingly cathartic buildup, “Reset” and “Needle and Suture” pair speedy gallops with unorthodox vocal lines, and “Shadow” is somehow bright yet ominous. It peters out toward the end but gets just as much rotation as the classics.

Final Grade: B+

5) The Human Factor
Much like the jump from the debut to The Dark, The Human Factor is decidedly more streamlined than its predecessor. The songwriting is snappier than anything that the band did before, and a beefed-up production highlights the sharp guitar work and biting vocals. The frankly preachy lyrics throughout may be a contention for some, the love it or leave it theme on “The Final Word” is especially awkward, but they never undermine the hooks. The Human Factor may not have had the crossover appeal of Countdown to Extinction or Metallica’s Black Album, but it’s a strong effort that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Final Grade: A-

4) The Dark
Perhaps the most dated Metal Church album, The Dark immediately stands out for its distinctly 80s production job (Lordy, that snare sound) and rather streamlined songwriting. While the album isn’t as adventurous or savage as the debut, songs like “Watch the Children Pray” and the title track manage to retain a similar menace. On top of that, the songwriting is catchy as hell with “Ton of Bricks” serving as an iconic opener while “Start the Fire” and “Method to Your Madness” seem tailor-made for ultra-cheesy Headbanger’s Ball videos. Every modern trad metal band is trying to capture this album’s slasher soundtrack vibe and none of them will succeed.

Final Grade: A-

3) Blessing in Disguise
The first album to feature vocalist Mike Howe, this may also be one of Metal Church’s most ambitious efforts. Its songwriting is more elaborate than anything that’d come before as “Anthem to the Estranged” and “Badlands” serve as dynamic back-to-back epics while others like “Of Unsound Mind” and “The Spell Can’t Be Broken” offer more unorthodox vocal hooks. “Fake Healer” also earns its own classic status thanks to a muscular mid-tempo riff set and a simple yet effective chorus. It may take a few extra listens to get into compared to the band’s other classics, but it remains essential listening for melodic metal fans.

Final Grade: A-

2) Metal Church
Metal Church had kinship with Metallica in their early days. In addition to touring together several times in the mid-80s, both bands offered a more grandiose take on thrash than their peers at the time. While Metallica would be the ones to win over the metal world with powerful rhythms and snappier songs, Metal Church’s debut album is arguably just as strong. The mood ranges from the apocalyptic “Beyond the Black” and “Gods of Wrath,” the Motorhead-friendly “Hitman,” and the B-movie aesthetic of “(My Favorite) Nightmare.” The musicianship is also stellar; “Merciless Onslaught” and “(My Favorite) Nightmare” feature the best drumming in 80s metal and the vocals cover a manic range of emotions. The clunky “In the Blood” and the somewhat superfluous “Highway Star” cover keep it from pure perfection, but this is an essential classic all the same.

Final Grade: A

1) Hanging in the Balance
As the title indicates, Metal Church’s fifth album demonstrates serious uncertainty. They hadn’t given into any early 90s trends, but the influence of Savatage producer/songwriter Paul O’Neill led to a more melodic sound complete with Howe’s vocals being comparable to Sebastian Bach in spots. But rather than faltering like so many of their peers, the band’s desperation is downright compelling. Songs like “Gods of Second Chance” and “Losers in the Game” have a real sense of urgency, and “Waiting for a Savior” is among the band’s most emotionally impactful tracks to date. The album was shamefully (albeit understandably) ignored at the time but has gotten favorability in the internet age. Seeing how the album just had its 25th anniversary in 2018, a reissue could be a worthwhile venture. Just change that godforsaken album cover…

Final Grade: A

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1 comment

NIGEL YORK January 10, 2019 at 4:30 pm

You nailed it! Perfect!

Reply

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