American metallists Metal Church caused quite a stir a couple of years ago when they returned to the fray with a new album (the excellent XI) which featured the singing of vocalist Mike Howe, the man responsible for singing on such much-loved old MC albums as The Human Factor and Blessing in Disguise. Now that all that hullabaloo has died down, It seems reasonable to view the new Metal Church album, entitled Damned if You Do and once again featuring the honeyed pipes of Howe, as just another Metal Church record, right?

Well, up to a point that’s true. But whereas everything about Howe’s return to the fold seemed to inspire the band’s main songwriter Kurdt Vanderhoof to write a ‘quintessential’ Metal Church record, this time the band have gone one step further and created something else entirely – a bloody brilliant Metal Church album. So, gone is the metal classicism of tracks like No Tomorrow, which was XI’s best, to be replaced by spiky, uncomfortable tracks like Monkey Finger, which eschew the band’s default glossy sub-thrash setting in favour of altogether more satisfying sonic kicks. Whilst XI appeared to make all the right moves, Damned… actually rewrites the moves’ rule book, stripping the beast down to it’s component parts and rebuilding it in confident, stylish style.

XI wouldn’t have risked something so overtly melodic as Revolution Underway, for instance; here, the band, emboldened by their reacquaintence with success, head gleefully down the melodic path with not a care for the consequences. Similarly the quirkily tuneful Out of Balance mixes the trad metal of Accept with a pinch of the old Metal Church to create something quite wonderful. Guitars still chug, kick drums rumble, yes, but the delightfully off-kilter melodies produced by Howe take the track to another, different level for the band. This is music that’s genuinely exciting to be a part of as a listener.

The band haven’t thrown the baby out with the metallic bathwater though; there are still plenty of moments here that’ll allow you to release your inner teen as you head off to the attic to dig out your souvenir Metal Church neck brace from back in the day. The opening title track may appear to be kicked off by some throat-singing Tibetan monks but doesn’t take long to send metal needles into the red, whilst closing track The War Electric bookends things nicely with some good old-fashioned Metal Church thrash. Vocalist Howe sounds curiously unhinged in the heavier moments of the album, like this track, often coming across like a pint-sized Bobby Ellsworth as he screams and snarls his way through the lyrics.

So, I’m glad to say XI wasn’t just a nostalgic one-off success. Damned if You Do shows that Metal Church are very much a vital, relevant proposition in 2018, with power to add to their legacy in 2019 and beyond. Good luck to them!

Damned if You Do is out on December 7th.