Denim and Leather Remembers: Metal Church by Metal Church

“What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.” – Victor Hugo

By Ashley Bailey

The year is 1984 and George Orwell is at the forefront of culture again; Apple are making bizarre ads inspired by his seminal work, and the ever reaching, corrupting pursuit for power is the defining characteristic of this era's economy. Conversely, it is the year Ghostbusters, Gremlins and The Terminator were born. 1984 is also rather an important period in heavy metal history.

During this time came the inception of many influential bands, a large majority of which are still going strong today:  Annihilator, DeathIced Earth, Stratovarius and Sepultura - amongst others. Fistful of Metal was released in 1984; as was Powerslave, Ride the Lightening, Crusader and The Last in Line. It was year that saw one of the most infamous moments in heavy metal history: Razzle's death in an vehicular accident, and Vince Neil's involvement. Though we will be talking about precisely none of these milestones and events, and instead focus on an album that while considered a classic, is often a little over looked: Metal Church's self-titled debut.

Formed in 1980, and initially known as Shrapnel, Metal Church's formative years were shakier than Red Sonja's. Aside from founder and guitarist -and only near constant member- Kurdt Vanderhoof, the band went through members faster than Shaggy gets through one of his famous Super Sandwiches; Lars Ulrich even rehearsed with the band a few times. Imagine that: Lars Ulrich in Metal Church. It took a couple of years and a literal change of state for the classic line-up (Wells, Erickson, Arrington, Wayne, Vanderhoof) to come into existence. A few demos later, and we have Metal Church.

The album opens with the rather interesting Beyond the Black. Demonic narration aside,  you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's an instrumental, as it has a rather lengthy and progressive intro. Thematically, the song effectively sets the tone for the rest of the album: it's atmospheric, dark and full of social commentary, focusing on a conflict in the 'mid-nineteen hundreds' that wiped out mankind and destroyed the planet. 

Whilst it is fueled by the aggression and energy of thrash (before thrash became popular), the song has a brooding, progressive feel, and is like something Savatage would do - only heavier. David Wayne's vocals are like the traditional metal equivalent of what was going on in the emerging European black metal scene (think Bathory). It's quite fitting that Metal Church are of a time when metal started to become a more complex beast to categorize - though still less complex than today's method of adding an SRPG sounding pre-fix onto an existing genre. 

Next up is Metal Church. As in the song Metal Church, on the album Metal Church, by Metal Church. Don't you just love it when bands do that? Fanciful digressions aside, the song is like a second take of Beyond with added Judas Priest.  It's closer to speed metal than the previous song, with fast picking replacing the aggressively chugged riffs.

Following on from two pretty heavy tracks, Merciless Onslaught is like a drunken mate escalating an already volatile situation. If you didn't see the thrash elements of the previous songs this will leave you in no doubt regarding Metal Church's cred; even if you are as distrusting as those Barack Obama 'birthers'.  Merciless Onslaught does exactly what it says on the tin: it's two minutes and 55 seconds of Kurdt, Craig, Duke and Kirk letting loose - Dave's probably sat down having a cuppa after his epic Halford-esque closing scream from the previous song. 

Gods of Wrath is the first 'different' track of the album. Don't get me wrong, I like Metal Church, but it's often quite hard to differentiate between their tracks; they're like the Weasley Twins of metal music. So, Gods of Wrath is a slower, more somber affair, but not quite a ballad. It's one of my favourite tracks on the album, largely due to Mr Wayne's vocal performance: he delivers the verses rather low key, with a hint of emotion, whilst in-between he's all "whoa-oh" and screams that are kinda uncomfortable, but at the same time completely epic. He really gets to show off his impressive high baritone vocal range. There's also an incredibly cool solo from Kurdt, which definitely has both style and substance.

The next track, Hitman, is another one of my favourites. Hitman brings proceedings back up to an acceptable speed, and features a more traditional metal style main riff that compliments the vocals perfectly. It also sports the absolute best lyric on the album: "No one will ever know it was youuuuuu oh whoa oh oh." Dave's delivery is absolutely spot on, and he makes it catchy as hell. 

The sixth track, In the Blood, is (in my humble opinion) the weakest on the album. There's nothing wrong with it on a technical level, it features solid guitar work and versatile vocals, but it's just rather forgettable; just like healers in a MMORPG. Although the crescendo ending with Dave screaming "hide" as the drumming and guitars become increasingly frantic, is nothing short of excellent.

 (My Favourite) Nightmare is an interesting track, mostly because it sticks out more than a healthy ring finger at a sore thumb convention. Aside from the title - which frankly sounds like something a bad Alice Cooper tribute would come up with - it just doesn't feel like a Metal Church track; not at first anyway. The opening riff feels a bit too, well, I suppose Alice Cooper. It quickly picks up momentum with some solid drumming, and becomes  a final dungeon boss of sorts: combining elements of previous tracks to form a beastly track. 

Penultimate track Battalions is Metal Church's Twilight of the Gods, or considering which came out first: Twilight of the Gods is Helloween's Battalions. Whilst that was a somewhat jokey comparison, the two are worthy of comparison: both even use a deep, distorted voice randomly during the verses for emphasis. Here, Dave's gruff but melodic vocals are straddling somewhere  between traditional and power metal, making a nice contrast to the strong, piercing wails that came before. Everything about Battalions is epic, but a special mention goes to the guitar work, which unfolds at a brisk uncompromising pace; including a brilliant solo that's every bit as soulful as it is technical. 

The album ends with a cover of Deep Purple's legendary Machine Head opener - Highway Star - and it's a bit like whenever Metallica covers a song you really like: the original will forever remain on its pedestal, sure, but the cover has this new energy that makes the song incredible. It's quite fun listening to Mr Wayne trying to emulate Ian Gillan with his powerful vocals.

And with those last few discordantly strummed chords, our 42 minute stay at the Metal Church comes to a close.

Has it stood the test of time?

Well let's do a little test: think of three thrash albums, and put your hands up if Metal Church was one of them. I'm assuming not many people put their hands up; and for the benefit of our not souring relations, I'm assuming this wasn't out of acedia

Both Metal Church and its follow up, The Dark, are considered to be the band's greatest work to date. And whilst this is certainly the case, I feel that Metal Church was released a few years too late to truly matter. The demos they were creating before their debut album landed have been described as pivotal in the just then emerging thrash movement, and one can certainly see why Metallica were fans of the band's unique style. Thrash as a concept had somewhat existed since the late seventies; but by the time Metal Church was released, thrash (as we know it) was already being spread to the metal mass and defined by albums like: Kill 'em All, Fistful of Metal, Show No Mercy and the Overkill EP. Thrash was further developed by the rising East Coast, Brazilian and German teutonic scenes. It's essentially a Gregor Mendel situation: not many outside of music buff circles remembers Metal Church for their work as a instrumental foundation block of the early thrash scene. 

Whilst critics tended to favor The Dark, I personally feel Metal Church is the better example of the band's work: Beyond the Black, Hitman and Battalions should be made mandatory listening for any fan of eighties metal. The production is a little rough around the gills, but this is one of those strange instances where the low production actually lends to the band's style of music. As I've mentioned previously, this album was the dog's perfectly formed nuts back in the eighties and is still well regarded in certain circles even to this day; it's just a shame they didn't get a little more credit for their influence on the thrash community. And for not letting Lars be in the band.

Devil Horn Rating (Out of Five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/