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By Jay Roberts, Massachusetts Contributor
Monday, April 27, 2020 @ 12:20 AM

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From The Vault

Rat Pak Records - 2020

"Yesterday's a dream now, nearly an illusion
Tomorrow's just a fantasy that's bordering delusion
All the days you've yet to live are rushing towards the past
Curtain's up, climb aboard, through the looking glass"

After the release of last year's devastatingly fantastic album Damned If You Do, I can't say that I would've been all that surprised if 2020 hadn't seen any new release from METAL CHURCH. But not one to rest on their laurels, the band has delivered a compilation record of new material, b-side recordings, live tracks and cover tunes.

Now I know that a lot of these kind of clear-the-decks releases are utilized as a way to get material out into the public with out any real sense of showcasing bands at their particular best. You can usually see why the majority of the material never made it onto a regular studio release. However, that is far from the case on From The Vault, an album that instead showcases METAL CHURCH in yet another shining spotlight and provides even more evidence of the band's understated yet undeniable greatness.

There's a lot to unpack about this album so as the above listed lyric quotation suggests, let's climb aboard and go through the musical looking glass!

The first thing to note is the album is rather helpfully divided up into four clearly defined sections. From The Vault kicks off with the band's newly created material and these four tracks are as effective as any of the music included on their "regular" albums.

Eschewing any notion of musical foreplay, the song "Dead On The Vine" opens the disc by simply bursting out of your speakers already going at full throttle. It keeps up that relentlessly attacking pace throughout the song. The music on the track is simply fantastic and the vocal performance from Mike Howe is powerfully presented. It struck me that there is some bit of extra intensity to the vocals here with Howe's elastic growl given more space than usual.

The song "For No Reason" is pretty fast moving as well, but there is a definite show of restraint on the song's chorus where things slow down a bit to showcase the lyrics before the music ramps back up. As for "Above The Madness", the ripping tempo is given full rein and is accompanied by what I thought was a much darker outlook, lyrically speaking. That's not a criticism though, because it actually elevates the song like you wouldn't believe.

Those three songs are newly written for this release. There is a fourth "new" song but it was a re-recording of what is one of my favorite METAL CHURCH songs of all-time, "Conductor". I am not typically in favor of bands doing these kinds of re-recordings of their own material because they usually are just pale imitations of the original track. Why mess with perfection, right? And I will say that my first listen to the new version was a tough exercise. It's not that I was thinking it was badly done, but that first time through, I could hear the original song in my head and the comparisons were flying fast and furious. (Note: It probably didn't help that I'd just listened to the original version a couple weeks back while writing an article about the Hanging In The Balance album). But the next time through, I was hearing the new version by itself and found myself singing (okay, mouthing the words) along like I was hearing it for the first time. I won't say that I like it better than the original but it is really good and any newcomers that might hear the song are going to experience the same kind of blown away feeling I had as the machine gun rat-a-tat-ta delivery of the lyrics fly out of Howe's mouth.

Wheeww! That's a lot to say about just four songs, no? The next section of offerings are the b-side tracks from the Damned If You Do album sessions. Would these be some kind of hamfisted mediocre tracks that clearly demonstrate why they weren't on the actual album? Surely you jest!

Two of the songs are instrumentals and while the band is not really known for them, each time an instrumental has been included on an album, it has been a pretty darn good musical exploration. The song "Insta Mental" has a kind of rocking pugnacious punch to it while "432HZ" serves as a means for the band to downshift for a few minutes from the more hard-hitting material into a more laid back musical presentation. The song provides just the right amount of time for listeners to take a breath before diving back into, as Dee Snider likes to say on his House of Hair radio show, "The Metal".

As for the three songs with both music AND lyrics, they are actually quite good in their own right. I'd venture to say I kind of wish they'd made it onto the Damned If You Do album proper. There's no messing around on any of the three songs as they all burn pretty fast and furious. "Mind Thief" is rock solid all around, while "Tell Lie Vision" (which oddly enough, took me a minute to get the song title's meaning) serves not only to rock the listener but as a scathing indictment of the toxic talking heads on television.

I don't know if it was METAL CHURCH's intent but the song "False Flag" struck me as serving as a thematic counterpart to "Tell Lie Vision". I admit that I could be reading more into the song and its lyrics to come up with that notion but who knows, maybe I'm not. Either way, the song is smoking hot.

It should be pointed out that all the original material on the disc (not counting the redux of "Conductor") was written by guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof and Mike Howe. I think that they adeptly demonstrate the strengths of them working as a team with these tracks.

The third set of songs are cover tracks the band has recorded. This is a little bit more of a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the whipsaw energy of the RAM JAM cover "Black Betty", but I was less enamored with the version of "Green Eyed Lady" by SUGARLOAF. The band ups the amperage a lot, particularly on the midsection but I just couldn't find my way to fully enjoying the song.

That said, you have got to check out the METAL CHURCH version of the NAZARETH song "Please Don't Judas Me". I haven't ever heard the original version of the song and after hearing this rendition, I'm not sure I want to. I loved the dramatic presentation that was employed for this version. Mike Howe's vocal reigns above everything on this track. I'm sure those NAZARETH fans will have something to say about the cover but for me, this is simply incredibly powerful performance.

The last part of the album is two live tracks recorded in Japan. I don't generally believe that live cuts do much for an album that isn't an official live release. However, the inclusion of "Agent Green", (the studio version on The Human Factor album is superb) with it's killer late song lyrical verses really won me over. As for "Anthem To The Estranged", well what can I say to sum up what I thought? How about "Just Wow!" Yeah, it was actually quite fantastic. The song is ten minutes long and this live version is just as striking as the studio cut on the Blessing In Disguise album.

Say what you want about compilation releases, because I'm normally right there with you. But them's fighting words to anyone who can't see that what METAL CHURCH has crafted with From The Vault. The album is one of the best archival type releases that a metal fan could come to hope for. It once again shows why METAL CHURCH should be acknowledged as one of the best and most creative forces in metal music. Period...the end..'Nuff Said!

4.7 Out Of 5.0

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