Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Metal Church, "Blessing in Disguise" (1989)
Metal Church - BLESSING IN DISGUISE (1989)
At the height of the mid '80s Thrash Metal craze, there was one band that my friends and I all thought would be the Next Big Thing - Metal Church. They certainly had the right pedigree. Originally hailing from Thrash's birthplace of San Francisco (before moving up the coast to Washington State), Metal Church possessed all the right ingredients for headbanger success - intelligent yet catchy songs, a crunching wall-of-guitars attack, a maniacally shrieking frontman, and an appropriately doomy outlook on life in general. Metal Church's self-titled first album (1984) is still a stone cold classic that ranks right up alongside Metallica's Kill'Em All and Queensryche's first EP in the Great Metal Debut Album Hall of Fame, in this writer's humble opinion. The band originally released their debut on their own independent "Ground Zero Records" label before it was picked up for wider distribution by Elektra Records, home to their buddies in Metallica (legend has it that Lars Ulrich nearly became Metal Church's drummer back in the day, while they were still Frisco based and Lars' own band had yet to get off the ground). Featuring such crushing cuts as "Beyond the Black," "Gods of Wrath," "Hitman" and a turbo-charged cover version of Deep Purple's "Highway Star," Metal Church is one of those rare records that has actually gotten better with age. 1986's The Dark was no slouch either; Metal Church successfully avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with skull-cracking goodies like "Psycho," "Ton of Bricks" and the moody ballad "Watch the Children Pray," whose video got a fair amount of play on MTV. By 1986, Metal Church was a band on the rise.
Third Time's The Charm?
...unfortunately, by the time touring for The Dark ended, the Metal Church was standing on shaky ground. Vocalist David Wayne and guitarist/songwriter Kurdt Vanderhoof both announced that they were leaving the band. The loss of one key band member would've been bad enough, but two seemed like an unsurmountable obstacle. Wayne would go on to form his own band (Reverend) while Vanderhoof, tired of the road life, opted to stay home and throw himself into studio/engineering work. He did, however, remain active in Metal Church's affairs in a songwriting capacity.
Replacement members were found in the form of guitarist John Marshall, a former guitar tech for Metallica, and vocalist Mike Howe of L.A. thrashers Heretic. Kurt Vanderhoof had just produced Heretic's Breaking Point album (1988) and thought that Howe's voice, smoother and less gravelly than that of his predecessor, would fit right in with Metal Church's newer, more "epic" styled material. In an odd turn of events, once Metal Church tapped Howe for their vocalist spot, several of his Heretic bandmates joined David Wayne's new combo, Reverend!
With all the new pieces in place, Metal Church released their third album, Blessing In Disguise, via Elektra Records in 1989. Produced by Terry Date (who would go on become an in-demand hard rock producer during the '90s thanks to his work with Soundgarden, Pantera, and White Zombie, to name just a few), Blessing wasn't as fast or furious as its two predecessors, but it didn't skimp on the heaviness. Kicking off with the chugging, thunderous "Fake Healer," an indictment of crooked doctors and the corrupt U.S. health care system, Blessing in Disguise was Metal Church's most "mature" album. At the time Queensryche had been tagged as the "Thinking Man's Metal Band," but on Blessing In Disguise Metal Church staked their claim for that title as well, with such tracks as the stately "Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912)," a metallic re-telling of the sinking of the Titanic, and "Of Unsound Mind," a tale of murder and mayhem inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." Who says heavy metal can't be literary or educational, huh?
My two favorite tracks on the album are the sweeping single "Badlands," a bleak tale of life on the road, and the emotional nine-and-a-half minute (!) epic "Anthem to the Estranged," in which a man who once had it all finds himself homeless and reduced to nothing. The song goes from soft acoustic ballad to slamming metal and back again throughout its run time and Howe's dramatic vocal performance makes it compelling listening. In fact, Howe's pretty damn impressive throughout the whole album, performing with a confident snarl that proves he was the perfect guy to take the place of the mighty David Wayne. In addition to Howe's excellent pipes, the rest of the band got to show off their chops on the instrumental "It's A Secret," which hearkened back to the band's speed metal origins and reminded long time fans of the classic instrumental "Merciless Onslaught" from their debut album.
In a nutshell, Blessing In Disguise rocks like a ton of bricks (pun intended) and if the Universe were fair, it should've shot them into the upper echelons of metal royalty.
"Anthem to the Estranged"
So What Happened?
Unfortunately, though Blessing In Disguise garnered positive reviews from nearly every corner of the metal press, it never really caught on with record buyers due to the near-total saturation of the hard rock and metal scene in 1989. Most fans were either snapping up records by thrashers or by the hair bands, and as good as it was, Metal Church's no-frills brand of meat-and-potatoes traditional metal may have made them hard to package. Elektra Records soon dropped the band due to low album sales, and though they managed to squeak out two more releases on different labels (1991's excellent The Human Factor on Epic and 1993's Hanging in the Balance on Blackheart Records), the writing was on the wall and sadly, Metal Church soon fell silent.
You can't keep a good band down forever, of course, and in 1999 Metal Church reunited with original vocalist David Wayne for the lukewarm 1999 album Masterpeace. Wayne soon left the band, citing personal and musical differences (he would later release a middle-finger to his old band in the form of a 2001 solo album entitled... you guessed it... Metal Church, under the "Wayne" moniker. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall when Vanderhoof first saw that CD!). Tragically, David Wayne died in May of 2005 due to injuries sustained in an automobile accident, though he'd reportedly patched up his differences with his former Metal Church mates prior to his death.
By the early '00s Kurdt Vanderhoof had an itch to create new material and get back on the road, so he assembled an all-new Metal Church lineup which included former Malice guitarist Jay Reynolds and Savatage/Trans-Siberian Orchestra drummer Jeff Plate. This version of Metal Church released three more albums - 2004's The Weight of the World, 2006's A Light in the Dark, and 2008's This Present Wasteland and became a popular live act. New singer Ronny Munroe reportedly did his predecessors proud with his strong vocal delivery, but in the face of declining record sales, Metal Church announced that they were disbanding once again in 2009. Vanderhoof and Munroe have since released material with the '70s styled progressive rock band Presto Ballet, and Munroe also currently serves as a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra in addition to releasing several discs as a solo artist.
In early 2013 the Munroe-fronted Metal Church unexpectedly rose from the ashes again, making a live appearance aboard the "70,000 Tons of Metal" cruise and announcing that a comeback studio album was in the works. Metal Church's 10th studio release, Generation Nothing, was released in October 2013 on Rat Pak Records and garnered some of the best reviews the Church had received since their glory days. Ronny Munroe announced that he was leaving Metal Church in late 2014 to "pursue other musical interests," leading to heavy speculation amongst fans that Blessing In Disguise vocalist Mike Howe might be coming back to the fold.
In late April 2015, Metal Church finally made it official - Mike Howe was indeed back in the band, and they working on new material for release later in the year. In the press release announcing Mike's return, Kurdt Vanderhoof enthused that Mike's voice "sounds as good as it did 20 years ago! This is going to be truly EPIC!" The new album with Howe on vox, titled XI, is due through Rat Pak Records in March of 2016.
If you're interested in joining the Metal Church faithful, Blessing In Disguise would be a great place to start for the curious listener. Remember, the Spell Can't Be Broken!!
"No Tomorrow" from "XI" (2016)
METAL CHURCH discography:
Metal Church - Elektra, 1984
The Dark - Elektra, 1986
Blessing In Disguise - Elektra, 1989
The Human Factor - Epic, 1991
Hanging in the Balance - Blackheart, 1993
Masterpeace - Nuclear Blast, 1999
Live - Nuclear Blast, 2000
Weight of the World - SPV, 2004
A Light in the Dark - SPV, 2006
This Present Wasteland - SPV, 2008
Generation Nothing - Rat Pak, 2013
XI - Rat Pak, 2016