Album of the Week 12-2016: Metal Church – XI

When Metal Church announced the return of their best singer Mike Howe, I was moderately positive. Moderately, because Howe hadn’t been in any professional band since leaving Metal Church in the mid-nineties and time can be quite merciless on the human voice. Besides, I was quite fond of Ronny Munroe’s natural grit. Howe’s voice, however, has stood the test of time remarkably well and apparently fired up founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof to write his most inspired set of songs since the band’s original reunion, leaning very carefully toward the darker, more progressive tendencies of the earlier Howe-era. A very welcome change.

Recent Metal Church albums weren’t bad at all, but lacked the urgency that marked their classic work. While ‘XI’ doesn’t entirely escape that problem – a song like ‘Signal Path’ is decent enough, but not as memorable as it should be – it’s definitely the type of album you’ll spin completely instead of skipping to the better tracks. What helps in that regard is the production job; everything is well balanced and Jeff Plate’s drum sound is so much more natural than what is the norm for contemporary Metal records and therefore a lot more pleasant to listen to. Producers should take notes.

But in the end, what really counts is the song material. I was sort of afraid that the band had already hit us with their best shot when ‘No Tomorrow’ surfaced. It’s a nice epic riff fest in which Mike Howe really plays to his strengths, avoiding the highest regions of his range, but still retaining a lot of it. So how does it hold up to the rest of the album? Well, although it is the best song on ‘XI’, there are quite a few songs that come close. Especially those with highly memorable guitar riffs, like opening track ‘Reset’ or the amazing contemporary USPM of ‘Soul Eating Machine’.

‘XI’ really surprises when the band experiments with slower tempos. Of course, with a singer like Howe, you’ll want to give him the space and slower tempos tend to help that. But it’s also the riff work courtesy of Vanderhoof and Rick Van Zant that really shine in songs like the dark and progressive ‘It Waits’ and ‘Shadow’, which sounds like a cross between ‘Fake Healer’ and Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven And Hell’. ‘Sky Falls In’ sounds like it would turn into a Bluesy Rock shuffle, but instead, becomes a powerful midtempo stomper. Fans of faster material can’t go wrong with ‘Needle And Suture’ or closing track ‘Suffer Fools’.

If it’s Howe’s return or a lucky combination of circumstances that drove Vanderhoof to writing his best material in years remains to be seen, but it’s a fact that ‘XI’ is a thoroughly enjoyable album full of memorable riffs, hooky songwriting and amazing vocals. If that doesn’t make a great traditional Heavy Metal record, I don’t know what does. And it’s probably a coincidence, but releasing this in the Easter weekend does justify to spend your time on at least one “Church”.

Recommended tracks: ‘No Tomorrow’, ‘Soul Eating Machine’, ‘It Waits’

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