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30th Anniversary: Metal Church-Blessing In Disguise

Heading into 1989, Metal Church had weathered a storm that would have ripped apart lesser experienced bands in a matter of weeks. Growing exhausted from touring following the success of their second album The Dark, bandleader, and guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof elected to focus on composing until further notice. Coupled with this was the sudden departure of frontman David Wayne, this one-two punch left metal fans and press wondering if Metal Church was done for. Thankfully, the remaining core of guitarist Craig Wells; drummer Kirk Arrington; and bassist Duke Erickson decided not to panic.

Due to the band’s alliance with Bay Area bands, most notably the cheery chaps in the little band known as Metallica, Metal Church had one of the best talent pools to choose from. Guitar tech “Big” John Marshall was quickly brought into the fold and if that name sounds familiar, Big John would later handle live guitar duties for Metallica while James Hetfield recuperated from the injuries notoriously sustained in Montreal. As far as the frontman issue, Vanderhoof was able to convince Heretic vocalist Mike Howe that his talents would be better suited with his band. While the world at large was wondering if it was time to start digging Metal Church’s grave, this rejuvenated lineup quietly went back to work during the summer of 1988.

As the rest of the world went on with its business, Metal Church holed up in Pennsylvania utilizing Vanderhoof’s compositions as a starting point for recording what would become their third album. Having completed recording in early October, the band started off 1989 promoting their newly titled album, Blessing In Disguise. Having previously hosted Headbanger’s Ball, the band got the opportunity to return. Adam Curry promptly brought viewers up to speed since their last appearance and fans across the country got to hear from Duke Erickson and new guy Mike Howe.

Fans also got a taste of the new albums with the debut of single “Badlands”.

Initial assessment of the single’s debut suggests that longtime fans were a bit hesitant of the changes that had to be made for Metal Church to soldier on. Mike Howe’s consistent and high pitched shrieks were not David Wayne’s whiskey-throated snarls that hardcore mutants had been accustomed to since the dawn of the decade. Even though this is pure speculation, I’m sure it didn’t help that Mike Howe’s status as a pretty boy from L.A. was a far cry from the mysterious and brooding persona that David Wayne had cultivated during his time with Metal Church. And so it was established that Mike Howe was no David Wayne, but those that had listened to Heretic’s 1988 debut Breaking Point knew that this was nothing to worry about.

Regardless of how you felt, if you had even a passing interest in metal then you were aware that Metal Church was releasing a new album in the early months of 1989. Shortly before the album’s February 7th release date, fans got another single in the form of album opener “Fake Healer” and yes the changes are apparent but as fans got used them they may have realized these changes were also improvements. As 1989 continued on, “Badlands” maintained a steady rotation on Headbanger’s Ball and on radio stations that played metal. The album eventually cracked the Billboard 200, peaking at #75, suggesting that Mike Howe’s “pretty boy” status resulted in some unexpected crossover appeal.

While this theory is superficial at best, Blessing In Disguise is still an album that has something for everyone. If longtime fans still weren’t convinced by the aforementioned singles, instrumental “It’s A Secret” firmly reiterates that Metal Church weren’t slouching in the musicianship department. It would be foolhardy to call “Anthem To The Estranged” a power ballad, but it is composed in such as way that it speaks the language of whatever appeal they may have gained from the more adventurous denizens of the Bon Jovi crowd. Regardless of the individual reasons for purchasing the album, the album’s quality gets further ballast with deceptively brilliant tracks like “The Spell Can’t Be Broken” and “The Powers That Be”. The band also showed they weren’t a bunch of dumbasses with their Titanic thesis “Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912)”. Interesting piece of trivia in regards to that song: the guitar lead can still be heard from time to time on Dee Snider’s House of Hair. All of this is buttressed by a walk before you run approach that had been hiding in plain sight the entire time.

Contemporary reviews of the album suggest that Blessing In Disguise was met with a mixed critical reception with Kerrang! Magazine ever going as far as calling it “hit and miss” affair that “doesn’t live up to the standards set on their 1984 debut”. Meanwhile, Rock Hard magazine summed up their assessment as “better than The Dark”, but felt that Blessing In Disguise was “light years away from the debut”. Even though the album was critically branded as mediocre, that didn’t stop Blessing In Disguise from entering the Billboard 200 two months after its release, eventually netting Metal Church their biggest commercial success of the 20th century. Modern reception has been much kinder as younger fans are able to discover albums with greater ease and as the 2010s have worn on, Blessing In Disguise has become one of the first stops for new dogs that want to learn old tricks. Even those that may have written off the album upon its release have conceded that despite the changes, they’re one of the few bands that isn’t Iron Maiden that successfully endured drastic lineup changes.

Never a band to rest on their laurels, the band hit the road with Meliah Rage in the spring and served as the opening band for W.A.S.P.’s Headless Children tour. Abroad, they landed a gig in Germany with Fates Warning and Toranaga in addition to this, they appeared as special guests for their besties in Metallica at The Marquee in London.

In spite of Metal Church’s consistency of releasing quality albums, they became one of the first casualties in the major label metal culling that occurred in the early 90s. The band reconvened with original vocalist David Wayne at the end of the 90s but this proved to be short-lived as Wayne unexpectedly passed away. Mastermind Kurdt Vanderhoof reactivated the band in the mid-2000s and despite intermittent growing pains has kept the band going, even going so far bring Mike Howe back into the fold. With this new dynamic, they released album #11 Damned If You Do at the tail end of 2018. Oh yeah, they’ll also be coming to Indy to support it in May proving that 30 years later Metal Church still has a lot of grit and determination.

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1 comment

Jon Richardson March 12, 2019 at 6:26 am

I loved it then and still do. It has aged very well, in my opinion!

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