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Metal Church: The Elektra Years 1984-1989

Although they’ve released numerous excellent albums over the years - and none more so than their most recent three - check them out! - Metal Church might still possibly be best known as ‘that band’ Metallica once secretly opened for in London in 1990 under the pseudonym Vertigo. That in itself is a tragedy, for Metal Church had the songs and the brutal force to deserve to be revered in the same breathe as Hetfield & Co. and arguably were better than at least a couple of the other three bands in the ‘Big Four’ - Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer.

Here HNE/Cherry Red gather together the outfit’s first three albums: the classic 1984 self titled release, 1986’s The Dark follow up and the much lauded Blessing In Disguise from three years later. It’s undoubtedly a cracking triumvirate.

On the debut it’s the quintet of guitarist and band founder Kurdt Vanderhoof, fellow fret monster Craig Wells, singer David Wayne, drummer Kirk Arrington and bassist Duke Erickson who hammered their way through a classy, if raw mix of backward glancing NWOBHM brutality and forward looking thrash scene setting. With everything from the scything instrumental “Merciless Onslaught” to the uncompromising “Gods Of Wrath” hitting the mark, this really was a mighty opening statement and to HNE’s credit the sound here, while still rough around the edges, improves greatly on a previous CD reissue I own. Behind the mic Wayne, who sadly died in 2005, was a capable frontman possessing a surprisingly cultured clean vocal that could easily, as shown on “In The Blood” and “(My Favourite) Nightmare”, grow into a meaty howl and scream. Although for some, a few of the singer’s more adventurous moments may fall into acquired taste territory. For me though it’s Vanderhoof and Wells, as they form an incredibly tight guitar attack, that truly encapsulated the Metal Church assault - and what a ferocious attack it was. For some this is a truly defining moment in the thrash genre.

Something that also shines through on the equally potent, if more refined, The Dark album. Adding a slightly more Accept-like bark to proceedings there’s also a welcome maturity brought to the clear enthusiasm of the debut. Something which makes an undoubted impact on opener “Ton Of Bricks”, while “Method To Your Madness” isn’t far behind. However, with the refined, almost ballad like “Watch The Children Play” showing a completely different side to a band that had up until now been a purely heavy beast, the growth was clear. Sporting a stronger sound than the debut, the more direct “The Dark” and “Burial At Sea” find it hard to contain the inner aggression that Vanderhoof and Wells possessed as a writing team. From the romping “Line Of Death” to the stabbing “Psycho” The Dark is an out and out winner.

With such a phenomenal pair of albums under their belts, what nobody expected was the musical chairs that suddenly took place within the Metal Church ranks. First, Heretic singer Mike Howe replaced the departing Wayne, who rather unconventionally joined Howe’s old band members as they formed Reverend. Then Vanderhoof, tired of the touring life, stepped down as a full member of the group, with Metallica guitar-tech John Marshall striding in to take his place. Vanderhoof would, however, remain more than heavily involved as a studio musician, providing ‘additional’ guitars on the 1989 Blessing In Disguise album. Not content with that he and Wells also wrote nearly every piece of music to be heard, while lyric duties were shared between Vanderhoof, Marshall and Howe. For some, replacing Wayne was (if you’ll pardon the pun) heresy, but for others the Howe led version of Metal Church is the definitive era of the band and while I personally love both, I have to admit as to falling into the latter camp. Hence it’s no surprise that the more cultured if slightly more straight ahead metal attack of Blessing… is my pick of this remarkably strong bunch.

Howe’s authority behind the mic is something to behold as he delivers a lower register, gravely smash of vocal might that simply steamrolls through “Of Unsound Mind”, while the stutter-start-stop of “Fake Healer” was the perfect guitar led declaration of intent from a band reinvigorated. “Anthem To The Estranged” also proved that the new vocalist could actually sing, his beautiful clean work during the song’s acoustic opening still breathtaking to this day. From “The Powers That Be” to “The Spell Can’t Be Broken” and from “Cannot Tell A Lie” to “Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912)” the standard remains incredibly high and that’s without even getting on to “Badlands”, which might just top the lot via a stunning rhythm section workout. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that this album (and it’s follow up The Human Factor) was a staple in my metal education.

From there Metal Church would go on to release the aforementioned The Human Factor and Hanging In The Balance, before seemingly consigning themselves to history. However, Vanderhoof would be cajoled back into the Church alongside Marshall, Arrington, Erickson and a returning David Wayne for 1999’s Masterpeace comeback. From there Metal Church would become a bit of a revolving door centred round Vanderhoof, until Howe’s return for the astoundingly good XI. And they’ve, thankfully, gone from strength to strength ever since.

Musically it’s hard to fault The Elektra Years 1984-1989, with single edits of “Watch The Children Play”, “Badlands” and “Fake Healer” also featuring as bonuses. However, I must admit that the omission of the original European debut bonus track “Big Guns” seems something of an oversight. While the inclusion of a reproduction promo-poster for The Dark album release, over a more detailed liner-essay look at the band during their formative years and first evolution, is more than a little disappointing. However, for me, the bigger frustration comes from both Metal Church and The Dark being housed in this beautiful fold out digi-pack in classy reproduction vinyl sleeves, while Blessing…, rather bizarrely, slips into the fold-out as a stand alone disc with album art printed next to it and no reproduction sleeve. An odd, and in my opinion, sloppy choice, even if it doesn’t effect the music one iota.

For many, whether you fall into the Wayne or Howe camp, these three albums are right at the very peak of what the metal world achieved during an era that was arguably its most rewarding. There’s simply no denying that The Elektra Years is a great way to relive it.


Track Listing
DISC ONE METAL CHURCH (1984)
1. BEYOND THE BLACK
2. METAL CHURCH
3. MERCILESS ONSLAUGHT
4. GODS OF WRATH
5. HITMAN
6. IN THE BLOOD
7. (MY FAVORITE) NIGHTMARE
8. BATTALIONS
9. HIGHWAY STAR


DISC TWO THE DARK (1986)
1. TON OF BRICKS
2. START THE FIRE
3. METHOD TO YOUR MADNESS
4. WATCH THE CHILDREN PRAY
5. OVER MY DEAD BODY
6. THE DARK
7. PSYCHO
8. LINE OF DEATH
9. BURIAL AT SEA
10. WESTERN ALLIANCE
BONUS TRACK
11. WATCH THE CHILDREN PRAY (SINGLE EDIT)


DISC THREE BLESSING IN DISGUISE (1989)
1. FAKE HEALER
2. REST IN PIECES (APRIL 15, 1912)
3. OF UNSOUND MIND
4. ANTHEM TO THE ESTRANGED
5. BADLANDS
6. THE SPELL CAN’T BE BROKEN
7. IT’S A SECRET
8. CANNOT TELL A LIE
9. THE POWERS THAT BE
BONUS TRACKS
10. BADLANDS (SINGLE EDIT)
11. FAKE HEALER (SINGLE EDIT)

Added: March 7th 2020
Reviewer: Steven Reid
Score:
Related Link: The Elektra Years @ Cherry Red
Hits: 442
Language: english

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