I’ve got nothing against Ronnie Munroe. On the contrary; 2013’s This Present Wasteland, which features the man himself on vocals, is one of my favourite Metal Church albums. It’s just that, at this present time, there’s no need for the man. This fact is underlined at exactly the 36 second mark on XI’s opening track, the coruscating Reset. It’s at this point that returning vocalist Mike Howe opens his word hole for the first time. As you hear the noise that emanates, you’ll feel your fist involuntarily forming itself into a ball and punching skywards at exactly the same time you ulalate triumphantly a word approximating ‘yeeeesssssss!!!!!’.
All this is happening because Mike Howe is, the late David Wayne notwithstanding, the voice of Metal Church. Everything here sounds so fresh, yet so… comfortable that, if you’re a longterm fan of this band, means there is not one single second of XI that you’re not gonna love with every fibre of your metal being.
Killing Your Time rolls in on a Metallica-styled piece of rolling percussion before hitting the heights with the first in a series of ear-snaring choruses that’ll keep that fist, and those vocal chords, working hard throughout XI’s duration. Massive props are due here to band mainstay Kurdt Vanderhoof, who has really come up trumps in the songwriting department for this record, finessing a superb set of prog-tinged thrash metal that betrays no weak points but plenty of timeless brilliance.
Strummed acoustics offer up a portentous intro to the insanely catchy No Tomorrow; their memory is blown away by more machine-like drumming from Jeff Plate before the track lurches into a superb piece of classic metal, Howe leading from the front with a vocal that simply oozes class and conviction in equal measure. I’ll probably say this again before this interview is done, but there’s no overstating the fact that it’s an absolute pleasure to have this man back at the vocal helm again.
Those acoustics, ably wielded by Vanderhoof and six string companion Rick Van Zandt are back at the start of the dramatic Signal Path, melding into the electric rush of the song’s main fugue in a way that brings classic Paul Chapman-era UFO to mind; Metal Church always did have a more pronounced classic metal bent than their compadres back in the day, and, though they still thrash like maniacs when the situation demands it, it’s this flash of old school class that still gives their songs an edge to this day.
The pace slackens a little for Sky Falls In, the band as a whole easing off the gas but locking into a devilish, bouncing groove to deliver something a little different to what’s gone before. However, i’s same old same old come chorus time, as the band comes up with another ear-bothering refrain before stretching out on another superb instrumental mid-section full of dynamic, dramatic riffage, fulsome bottom end (courtesy of the largely unsung but not forgotten Steve Unger on bass) and combative percussion work from Plate.
Needle and Suture and Shadow aren’t quite so impressive, though that’s a relative term when the material on offer here is never less than impressive in toto; Shadow is the better of the two, a brooding, introspective piece of atmospherics that features a tasty solo, but it’s left to the superb Blow Your Mind to really get things back on track.
A fabulous throwback to the sort of crawling, spidery epics so beloved of thrash in the late eighties, Howe puts in one of his best performances on the album over the top of a thoroughly convincing, never less than spine-tingling musical backdrop that takes place at the crossroads of the snub-nosed belligerence of prime time Testament and the no-holds barred theatrical delivery of Alice Cooper. Whichever side of that particular divide you fall on you won’t fail to be enthused by this monstrous piece of metallic grandeur.
Soul Eating Machine is simpler, more direct and hard hitting but no less satisfying and comes equipped with another Howe-led chorus of titanic proportion, whilst closing brace It Waits and Suffer Fools – the former an utterly glorious slow-burner that climaxes with tremendous interplay between Howe and the two guitarists, the latter another skittering, slithering piece of open riff warfare and aggressive barking from a vocalist intent on closing the album as he opened it – ie in glorious, career-best form – both contribute to an overall feeling that this is easily the best record to come out under the Metal Church imprint since 1991’s The Human Factor.
XI is out on February 26 on Nuclear Blast.