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Metal Church - From the Vault Award winner

Metal Church
From the Vault
by Chris Hawkins at 11 May 2020, 10:26 PM

Seeing METAL CHURCH on “The Human Factor” tour was literally a life-changing moment.  Young and impressionable, I was nothing short of captivated at how the band blended Thrash aggression with a deep-seated respect for those who paved the way before them.  It was at that precise moment that I decided I wanted nothing more than to play Heavy Metal and thereafter relentlessly pressured my mom to get me a bass (and she thankfully caved in eventually).  METAL CHURCH simply defines all that is great about Metal: fist-pumping, die-hard excellence. Furthermore, the band has never gotten their just due being a bit heavier than what would be considered classic Metal yet not quite as extreme as a band such as SLAYER for instance.  That middle ground, though, is specifically where they shine, and wherein their true genius lies.  METAL CHURCH has thankfully persisted in pursuing Metal with refined integrity and their current lineup is certainly as strong, if not stronger, than ever.  Recently, the band released “From the Vault,” a collection of unreleased material with a few priceless gems included.  Let it be known, though, that this is not a collection of throwaway tracks aimed specifically for the anal retentive completist collector.  Rather, it could be categorized as a compendium of deep cuts that pay lip service to the METAL CHURCH of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Dead on the Vine” kicks things off with a powerful drop-kick to the teeth.  It is very much in the modern METAL CHURCH format with slamming double bass work and chunky riffs that show there is a wealth of inspiration fueling the band’s creativity.  The combination of powerful rhythms and classic Mike Howe vocals has always been a stellar feature of the band and this track very much exemplifies that approach.  The following track, “For No Reason,” is a clever amalgamation of furious classic Metal during the verse and an exposition of chillingly eerie vibes for the chorus.  Such a statement shows the elite edge this band has, a timeless quality that has simply grown even more pertinent into the band’s fourth decade.  Melodically rich yet not sappy or clichéd, it is yet another level above the track preceding it.

The sixth track, “Tell Lie Vision,” must be mentioned as well.  The main riff that sets the course for this powerful selection is like a crazy hybrid of “Jump in the Fire” and “Hell Bent for Leather”.  That statement is by no means meant to imply that this is a derivative approach, but rather, should serve as a point of reference to help set the scene.  Once again, when the chorus hits, the song simply catches fire, engulfed with that element that sets the band so far above their contemporaries, old and new, a regality manifested with the power of a truly great hook.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is still new ground to cover in terms of melodically rich Metal that leaves the most lasting of impressions.

The current lineup of the band truly is the most volatile of explosive powder kegs.  The dual threat of founder Kurdt Vanderhoof and fellow axe slinger Rick Van Zandt sets the bar high in terms of tone, the textural richness of the songs, memorability of the riffs, and technical prowess.  Steve Unger holds down the low end with a prominent bass sound that isn’t too bright or clanky but rather full-bodied and punchy as he brings that veteran approach knowing when to let loose nimble-fingered runs and massive slides and when to stay in the pocket.  Joining him as the other half of the rhythm section is the inimitable Stet Howland, a drummer with the most extensive of resumes having played with some of the biggest names in the business from JOEY BELLADONNA to hard rockin’ Southern powerhouse BLACKFOOT to the true kings of the Sunset Strip, W.A.S.P., and more.  His thunderous approach to the kit cannot help but make me wonder if this is what John Bonham would have sounded like had he delved into the more metallic end of the spectrum – proven pedigree and impressive chops are what define his sound.  Finally, Mike Howe rounds out the lineup behind the mic, arguably the defining voice of the band.  While there has never been a “bad” singer for the band, it is Howe’s snarling signature approach that brought the band to a whole different level.  His vocals are the best of both worlds with more than adequate range colored by just enough sleazy grime.  While some folks have made the comparison to Bobby Blitz Ellsworth, it is a disservice to Howe for he has a much wider berth, truly expansive in scope colored with just the right amount of distinct character which is evidenced throughout this collection of material.  The man should seriously be included on the A-list of Heavy Metal singers, an element that sets the songs on a higher level than most of their compatriots of the ‘80s

The above advantages of a stable, top-notch unit are exacerbated by the meaty production committed to the recording.  This is a stout sound with a pronounced, thrilling scope.  I cannot help but be reminded of the trailblazing work of Roy Z. and how he brought a new dimension of heaviness to both HALFORD and BRUCE DICKINSON helping to launch their respective post-millennium careers to new heights.  This fresh and seminal touch is fully elaborated on the classics the band have re-recorded.  First, we are treated to a pulverizing version of the lead track from ‘89s “Blessing in Disguise,” “Fake Healer,” and as a value-added bonus, Howe is joined by none other than Todd La Torre of QUEENSRYCHE.  Trading off vocals with Todd not only shows off Howe’s extraordinary vocal prowess but also displays how La Torre sounds more like Geoff Tate than Geoff Tate.  I seriously had to check the liner notes as I was initially convinced Tate had in fact been behind the mic!  It is on the new updated version of “Badlands,” though, where the true magic happens.  My ears will be ringing for days after blasting this one repeatedly.  Already one of the mainstays that consistently appears on the playlists for celebratory Metal nights, the band weave their patented primordial sorcery imbuing one of the truly best Metal songs ever penned with a newfound sense of urgency and spellbinding intensity.  Ultimately, it is a statement to the sheer enormity of talent and inspiration behind these musicians.

Also included among the whopping sixteen (!) tracks are three covers.  I’ve always loved hearing bands do covers, particularly a band I truly dig, because of the chance to hear another dimension of their sound in the handling of others’ material.  The best covers are always those that lie just outside the normal scope of what one would expect from said band and this is definitely the case here.  They first pay homage to the mighty Scottish legends, NAZARETH, with a gripping, soulful version of “Please Don’t Judas Me”.  Through the nearly seven minutes, METAL CHURCH make this song all their own and one can really make the connection of how influential NAZARETH were both in terms of the witchy haze of the melancholic instrumental aspect of the song and the parallel between Dan McCafferty’s unique timbre and Howe’s own approach to singing.  This is followed by a surprising cover of SUGARLOAF’s “Green Eyed Lady,” and while this has never been a song I particularly cared for, METAL CHURCH manages to give it an indelible appeal to sway me from my previous lack of enthusiasm.  The third cover is truly the best, a powerfully METAL CHURCH-branded take on RAM JAM’s timeless “Black Betty”.  The inherent boogie that is behind the magic of this song simply works for METAL CHURCH, a perfect rounding out of songs that fueled these guys’ passion for creating music to stand the test of time.

2020 is turning out to be quite the anomaly, certainly the oddest of time since 2001 and the chaos that ensued that September.  If there were ever a time the world needed quality music, it is now.  “From the Vault” is a powerful collection of songs by one of the most relevant Metal bands of the past four decades that has refused to dilute their quality or soften it up to gain more commercial viability.  Along with the latest TESTAMENT album, “From the Vault” is the fiery demonstration of a prolific band refusing to simply capitalize on the past.  METAL CHURCH is committed to top-shelf Heavy Metal as they increasingly move their art forward.  Have the lyrics to “Badlands” truly ever been more relevant?  “A dusty godforsaken path, endless to my dismay.  I know these are the badlands, somehow I’ll find my way”.

Songwriting: 9
Originality: 9
Memorability: 9
Production: 9

4 Star Rating

Tracklist:
1. Dead on the Vine
2. For No Reason
3. Conductor
4. Above the Madness
5. Mind Thief
6. Tell Lie Vision
7. False Flag
8. Insta Mental
9. 432 Hz
10. Please Don’t Judas Me (NAZARETH Cover)
11. Green Eyed Lady (SUGARLOAF Cover)
12. Black Betty (RAM JAM cover)
13. Fake Healer (Featuring Todd La Torre of QUEENSRYCHE)
14. Badlands (2015 Version)
15. The Enemy Mind
16. The Coward
Lineup:
Kurdt Vanderhoof - Guitars
Mike Howe – Lead Vocals
Stet Howland - Drums
Steve Unger – Bass
Rick Van Zandt – Guitars
Record Label: Reaper Entertainment
     


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