XI packs a real punch to the face and twice to the gut.
Sometimes things in life happen unexpectedly, for better or for worse. In Metal Church's case, it happened for the better. The fact that Mike Howe is now back in the band is not only a blessing (seriously no pun intended), it could not have come at a better time. Metal Church was in serious need of some sort of a reboot (for lack of a better term), and boom! What better way to facilitate that than welcoming back their old singer? Mike Howe is arguably one of the best Heavy Metal vocalists ever. No one saw that coming, that's for sure. I'll be real frank here and say that I was never a huge fan of Ronnie Munroe's vocals. That's not to say he doesn't have the talent; he just wasn't the best fit for Metal Church. Mike Howe, however, is. Now Metal Church can move forward at full strength, and it all starts with this brand new album, XI.
Ironically, XI is a fitting title -- as founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof previously discussed with us -- because it signifies the band's 11th studio album and it contains eleven tracks. Also, to keep things consistent in fine Metal Church form, the cover (created by Vanderhoof) features a guitar in an updated, more modern landscape. At the surface, you know it's a Metal Church album, but it's what is under the hood that really proves its true worth. It's almost as if the band have progressed sequentially and picked up where they left off at the end of Hanging in the Balance (1993).
When you spin up XI for the very first time, you'll find yourself right at home with the opening riffs of Reset. Then the incoming Thrash-infused drum beats (courtesy of Jeff Plate) will have you smashing your head to and fro against the invisible walls surrounding your close-quartered proximity. Mr. Howe's vocals are the icing on the cake, as he blatantly shows that he hasn't skipped a beat, even after a twenty-year absence. His beastly growls and screams are as powerful as ever, and he still has that wide vocal range. Hoorah! To quote Darth Vader: "Impressive. Most impressive." Killing Your Time is a great, fast-paced follow-up with its crunchy guitar licks, double-kick beats, and soaring vocal work from Howe. Fantastic solo too.
Track three, No Tomorrow, is the album's first single and features an acoustic guitar intro leading into a snare-induced march, before kicking it into high gear. This song sees a more melodic side to Howe's singing abilities, which he performs nicely. Vanderhoof performs a killer solo as well. From here on, it only gets more intense. Needle and Suture is a blistering, fist-pounding tune with ferocious screams coming from Howe's windpipe. Blow Your Mind sounds a lot like the classic Watch the Children Pray at the beginning, and then shifts back and forth between chugging rhythms to mid-ranged tempos. Like-minded It Waits follows the same pace, with some psychedelic-sounding guitar passages, and then doubles up the speed at the halfway point. Metal Church also diversify a bit with Sky Falls In, a mid-tempo groovy tune with a mix of screams and melody from Howe. Lucky eleven, Suffer Fools, is a fast rocker featuring some of Howe's greatest strengths, and the fade-out at the end presents somewhat of a hint that these guys are far from done.
Let's face it: there are a lot of bands from the '80s out there that are still putting out albums when they really should just pack it in. Metal Church are certainly not one of those bands. They have been given newfound strength and energy with the return of Mike Howe. It shows in their performance, their morale and most importantly, their sense of purpose. While it's not a successor to 1989's pinnacle Blessing in Disguise, XI is a definitive victory for Metal Church. It proves that they still have what it takes to create digestible music and stay true to who they are both individually and as a collective unit, while staying relevant within the modern music scene. So, if you're a Metal Church fan, XI is a must-have, period.
Images courtesy of RatPak Records.