Metal Church - The Elektra Years [HNE Recordings/ Cherry Red - 2020]Metal Church is a Californian five-piece band, who during the early-to-mid 1980s helped form & develop more extreme metal sub-genres like Thrash, Speed Metal & Power metal. This three-disc CD set on Cherry Red's metal/ rock sub-label HNE Recordings brings together the band's first three influence & respected albums their 1984 self-titled debut, 1986’s The Dark, and 1989’s Blessing In Disguise.
The three-CD set is presented in a long fold-out mini gatefold- this is a stiff & sturdy card affair with two of the three albums- the band's debut & their follow-up The Dark- coming in their own separate card sleeves inside the main sleeve. Also with the reissue, we get a fold-out mini-poster inlay- this features on one side full track listings & credits, and brief liner notes, then on the other reproduction of an original promotional poster for the band's second album. It’s ok packaging- through it would have been nice to get a longer more in-depth booklet with the set
Metal Church was originally formed back in the year 1980 by rhythm guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof- at this point, Vanderhoof was residing in San Francisco, so the early line-ups shifted somewhat- though for a period Lars Ulrich played in the band before he formed Metallica. In 1981 Vanderhoof returned to his hometown of Aberdeen Washington- where the line-up firmed up a bit more, with the band putting out three demos between 1981 & 1983 which led to the band signing to independent label Ground Zero in 1984, and the release of their self-titled debut.
The band's self-titled album appeared in July of 1984- and went onto became somewhat an underground hit, with it’s punchy & often speeding blend of more traditional metal ala NWOBHM, and what would become known as Power metal, Thrash, and speed metal. The album was a nine-track affair which rolled in at spot on the forty-two-minute mark- the line up for the album was twin-guitars from Kurdt Vanderhoof & Craig Wells, David Wayne on vocals, Duke Erickson on bass, and Kirk Arrington on drums. After it’s moody intro the opener “Beyond The Black” kicks in with a blend of chugging ‘n’ stabbing riff craft which is topped with Wayne soaring ‘n’ wailing vocals- you can clearly hear influences of NWOBHM, but the riff craft is much meatier & darker- with Wayne vocals are very much a template for future power metal singers. As we move through the album the band keeps the blend of pummeling to speeding riff craft, more traditional metal touches, and Wayne soaring 'n' swooping vocals. Worthy mentions come in the form of fist & headbanging speed metal instrumental track “Merciless Onslaught” which sees the band blowing any other band of the time out of the water, with its pace & instrumental prowess. The bounding ‘n’ chugging Thrash riff craft meets almost prog metallic soloing of “(My Favorite) Nightmare”, the pumped-up blues metal meets sudden speeding groove of “Highway Star”. Really most of this debut album retains a fairly speeding & punchy rate with only the albums fourth track “God Of Wrath” having a more mellow Rainbow like start, before it shifts back & forth between raging riffing & vein bulging vocals, and more mellow fare. As with all debut albums, you can clearly hear through Metal Church the bands influences, and the five-piece trying to get comfortable with their own sound- but there’s certainly a lot of power & identity building up through much of the record- all making an impressive debut album, and you can see why the band got signed to major label Elektra/Asylum- which saw this album getting reissued in 1985.
Moving onto the second disc is the set & we, of course, have the bands 1986 release The Dark- it takes in ten tracks, and forty-three minutes of material. On the plus side- over the album's length the songwriting feels tighter, with a darkly tinged feel too much of the material- on the negative side, as with many big labels, the production feels a little thin & condensed, and while the first half of the album packs a punch, the second half is very hit & miss with only the albums title track standing out. The album kicks off in fine form with one of the bands classic tracks “Tons Of Brick”- here we find a blend of focused churning ‘n’ pummeling drums, darkly rounding-but-bounding riff craft, and Wayne vocals that move between spat tension & controlled wail. With the third track “Method To Your Madness”, we find an effective blend of darkly galloping metal verses, a more wailing harmonic chorus, and a few more moody break downs. The first side topped off by the barnstorming speed metal meets wailing power metal vibe of “Over My Dead Body”. As we move into the second half/ second side of the album we get the title track- which is another highlight of the album- a great shot of moody chugging and devilish darting thrash craft. The remaining four tracks either feel a little by numbers, or lack the songwriting prowess/ meaty memorability of the bands better work. In all The Dark is a passable follow-up album to the self-titled- with the best moments finding the band more self-assured and darkly punchy, while the weaker points lack conviction & flare- it would be another three years before the band put out a follow-up.
So finally we have the bands third album 1989's Blessing In Disguise- and there was a lot of change a foot- first the bands fonder Kurdt Vanderhoof departs & is replaced by John Marshall who had been Kirk Hammett guitar tech, also the band had a new singer too in the shape of Mike Howe, who often has a Blackie Lawless like wail 'n' bay quilty to his voice. The album takes in nine tracks, with a longer runtime of fifty-three minutes- with a few tracks having runtimes between seven & nine minutes which certainly gives the band chance to show off their musical prowess & more dramatic compositions. The focus of this album is much more on epic Power Metal, instead of the previous albums crossbreeding of different metal sub-genres- so as a result the whole thing comes across much more consistent than The Dark, and more focused than the groups' debut. Highlights including the meaty chug ‘n’ banging riffling of “Of Unsound Mind” which has a Judas Priest Painkiller vibe to it. The chained fisted & spiraling speeding riff craft of “The Spell Can’t Be Broken” which features seared vocals from Howe, and a moody clean guitar breakdown. The epic nine & a half minutes of “Anthem To The Estrange” which starts off with intricate-yet- sadly cascading acoustic guitar, and Howe's felt vocals that sound like a blend of John Devener & Geddy Lee- as the pace builds we get break-outs in moody chugs & throat-shredding vocals which has once again a rather Lawless feel to them- the remainder of the track nicely build then pares back with some very nice passioned soloing axe work on display. As I mentioned early Blessing In Disguise is certainly the most consistent of the three albums here, but each album has it's moments.
So in finishing, it’s certainly great to have these three albums in one place- and if your interested in where/ how Thrash, Power & Speed Metal developed- or just enjoy meaty & well written 80’s metal you’ll need to pick this set-up…just a pity there couldn’t have been more of a booklet, but I guess it keeps the price down for the whole three-disc set which at present is just under the £20.00 mark.Roger Batty