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By Jay Roberts, Massachusetts Contributor
Monday, March 28, 2016 @ 2:04 PM

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Rat Pak Records - 2016

While the easiest way to open this review might be to proclaim "METAL CHURCH Is Back!", it would be more than a little of an inaccurate statement. The band really hasn't gone anywhere and they had released four rather outstanding and criminally overlooked albums with singer Ronny Munroe. So making a claim for the band being back would be unfairly dismissive of Munroe's considerable contributions to the METAL CHURCH history.

Now, with that being said and with a deep appreciation for Munroe, the return of singer Mike Howe from seemingly being wished into the cornfield 20 years ago has helped the band release an album that will surely cause metal heads everywhere to start headbanging in perfect unison.

The band wastes little time launching their metallic attack, starting things off with the thunderous and relentlessly paced "Reset". The song has a fantastic chorus: "Feeling good, feeling strong / Didn't think I'd last this long / Reaching deep, my soul to keep / Praying every night for sleep / turn the page in my old age / Now I'm at the final stage again / Now I hit the button to reset". While lyrically the song doesn't really have anything to do with Howe's return to the band, that last line does kind of seem to encapsulate that very feeling of returning. The band sounds like it did twenty years ago and without the material feeling the slightest bit dated.

The musical assault continues with "Killing Your Time", a fast paced rocker with great lyrical content in the main verses and an extra helping of viciousness in Howe's vocal delivery. While both "No Tomorrow" (which was the first "new" song released by the band to hype the album) and "Signal Path" have a soft guitar oriented opening, each track quickly sheds that softness and instead Kurdt Vanderhoof and Rick Van Zandt begin shredding. The vocal shifts in "Signal Path" alternate between a dramatic shading to all out aggression and help lift that song higher in my eyes/ears. The entire band finds a rock solid groove on "Sky Falls In" with a menacing vocal take from Howe shifting the song into overdrive.

I was a bit disappointed in the songs "Blow Your Mind" and "It Waits". The former track has such a plodding and deliberate ease in the intro that the resulting slowness of the song brings it down when the song finally does kick into a higher gear. Yes, the faster parts of the song are better but it doesn't completely offset everything else. As for "It Waits", the track is done in such a restrained and ultimately unsatisfying manner over the first three minutes that I had kind of mentally checked out by the time the song is essentially repeated with the track's run time as a more metallic crunch. It's like a bonus track, and while the aggressive take is a far better song, it would've served the band far more if that had been the only version of the song. The studio affectations employed on the vocals in the slower version of the song are atrocious.

But that's not to say that the inclination towards slower paced music or dramatic set ups to the songs are not successful at times. The way Mike Howe pulls back on the power of his voice for "Shadow" is amazing. The song has a very haunting quality to it. I could see this as a theme song to some kind of horror flick.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the backing vocal work on the album from bassist Steve Unger. Not only does he provide perfect rhythmic foundation on the bass, but his vocals enhance the already strong performance from Mike Howe.

METAL CHURCH's ability to craft high quality songs that are laced with balls out aggression is on display with songs like "Suffer Fools" and "Needle And Suture". The latter pounds you into submission and has a fantastic main guitar riff that particularly intrigued me.

The lyrical highlight of the album for me came on the turbo charged "Soul Eating Machine". The first verse of the song concludes with "I watched you change your face / In hopes of changing me". I'm sure everyone who listens to the disc and that song might have a different take on the lyric, but what I took out of for my own private thoughts helped define the song that much more for me.

The bonus disc is probably the best illustration of how any artist should put together one of these included extra discs. Besides a remake of the band's hit song "Badlands", which was the very first thing the band recorded after announcing Howe's return, there are three alternate takes of songs from the main disc. The radio edit of "Signal Path" remains strong and the demo version of "Shadow" is a nice bit of showing where the song started to the finished product. The alternative mix for "No Tomorrow" abandons the soft guitar opening and instead has drummer Jeff Plate banging out a rapid fire drum salute to give an even more all out attacking face to the track.

As for the four new song on the bonus disc, two are instrumentals. I thought the atmospheric-slash-ethereal "God Hit" did a nice job of slowing things down and yet retained a sense of the heavy all at the same time. As for "Brutal Fist", while the title of the song pretty much excludes lyrics that wouldn't sound cheesy, the stand alone piece of music was good all on its own and shows that the band can write instrumentals just as well as lyrical pieces.

The remaining two songs on the bonus disc put the peddle to the floor and doesn't let up at all. "The Coward" hits on all cylinders right from the start and "The Enemy Mind" conjures up visions of a maniacally grinning narrator spewing forth the venom laced lyrics.

If you preordered from the record label you got to choose from a variety of fan bundles, including autographed albums, T-shirts, a special edition booklet with photos, lyrics and statements and interviews from each member of the band. Guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof summed it up best when he stated (in the promo interview for the album) when he said "We are not trying to re-invent the wheel. We are an old school heavy metal band and proud of it!"

And that pretty much captures my feeling about METAL CHURCH's XI. It is defiantly old school metal but sounds right at home in this day and age. The return of the iconic Mike Howe (with vocal ability fully intact) seems to have given a renewed sense of purpose to the band as a whole and to the songwriting from Vanderhoof (he did the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Howe). METAL CHURCH never left in my opinion but they are certainly back in action (after about 18 months away) with XI serving as a trumpeted clarion call that not only do they mean business, they've got the chops to back it up. This comes as no surprise to me, but it is always nice to get that belief affirmed all over again.

4.6 Out Of 5.0

Grab your copy of XI in the KNAC.COM More Store right HERE.

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