Kurdt Vanderhoof is on top of his game lately. You'd have to be, to resurrect a band name sullied by years of indifference and a half-assed reunion, back it with a lineup of near-unknowns, and still come back out of the gate with the great reviews that 2004's "The Weight of the World" saw. That, and his '70s rock side project PRESTO BALLET (a band you need to check out immediately, if you haven't already), proved that Vanderhoof still has the fire, and isn't content to rest on his laurels.
He's now the sole original member of METAL CHURCH, with the departure of drummer Kirk Arrington (replaced ably by ex-SAVATAGE skinsman Jeff Plate). The new guys from before — vocalist Ronny Munroe, guitarist Jay Reynolds and bassist Steve Unger — have had time to gel, making "A Light In the Dark" feel a little more cohesive, more like a band effort, and not coincidentally, the most consistent album since the band's heyday with late frontman David Wayne.
"Beyond All Reason" is arguably the showpiece of "A Light In the Dark". That chord in the chorus alone elevates it to classic status, Vanderhoof sneaking a little bit of broody prog into what is a very by-the-numbers classic tune. The soloing is very impressive as well, particularly the twin lead part at the end, and Munroe has a slightly rougher, more world-weary tone to his voice that suits the vibe of the song perfectly.
And that song's darker, more introspective vibe carries over into the ten-minute epic "Temples of the Sea", an ambitious end-of-the-album-side undertaking with stirring chords and a classic, majestic feel. On the other end of the scale, "Pill For the Kill" and "Mirror of Lies" are heavier, crunchier, and more rockin', while "Son of the Son" boasts some of the most immediate vocals, a great uptempo solo, and scads of tasty twin-lead work.
All in all, "A Light In the Dark" seems to be more concerned with, or even obsessed over, the band's classic legacy than "Weight of the World" was. Whether that's out of a concern for giving the diehards what they want, or the result of a bout of reflection after estranged singer Wayne's untimely death last year, the fact remains that "A Light In the Dark" slots in easily next to the first two albums — the benchmarks by which most fans measure all CHURCH output. No disrespect is intended to the other replacement vocalist, Mike Howe, whose tenure produced the awesome "Blessing In Disguise" album — or to Munroe himself, for that matter. But these songs all sound like they were written in 1986, to be sung by Wayne in his prime.
Even the production on "A Light In the Dark" seems designed to recall past glories — stripped-down, very real and live sounding, with minimal overdubs or studio tricks. Again, this could be a matter of taste or of budget, but it's almost spooky how it takes you back to a bygone era, without seeming campy or retro. Simply put, this is a record written by a man responsible for some of the more hallowed albums on our shelves, and performed by a band that was there for those glory days — and the end result is worthy of placing next to those classics.
Wayne's passing is overtly addressed in the final track, a faithful rendition of "Watch the Children Pray" dedicated to his memory. While his relationship with Vanderhoof deteriorated in the years after "Metal Church" and "The Dark", it's nice to see the man given his eulogy here, respect for the unassailable legacy he put down with METAL CHURCH in just a few short years.
"A Light In the Dark" is a classic metal record, no more, no less. It sounds fresh and never relies on old-school gimmickry as a selling point, but it also sounds like it was unearthed from a vault at Elektra Records, dated 1988 — and for most METAL CHURCH fans, that'll be just fine. Those who ignore this and "The Weight of the World" because of some overdone sense of loyalty to the old lineup are denying themselves some of the most heartfelt, intelligent, unhyphenated heavy metal still being minted.