It's been a couple decades, but Mike Howe returns to METAL CHURCH following his dazzling three album run in the ‘90s, including "Blessing in Disguise", regarded by some as the band's finest outing. A terrific album to be sure, it yielded the wonderful "Badlands" which rivals 1986's "Watch the Children Pray" as METAL CHURCH's all-time best song. Though Ronny Munroe did a stout job fronting METAL CHURCH before opting to pursue other interests, fans are going to be all over the band's eleventh outing with Howe back on the mike.
Kurdt Vanderhoof has held a lone torch for this band almost in silent anticipation "XI" would come to fruition with Mike Howe leading the charge. Ronny Munroe gave it all he had, dishing out noble efforts on "The Weight of the World" through 2013's "Generation Nothing". Before him, the experiment to bring David Wayne back on 1999's "Masterpeace" yielded so-so results. On the flipside, Vanderhoof's courting of Mike Howe to see if they could find the spark that resonated through "Blessing in Disguise", "The Human Factor" and "Hanging in the Balance" not only pays off with "XI", it gives Vanderhoof and METAL CHURCH their verve back. No fluke, people; no matter how iconic the first two albums are, Mike Howe is the man for this band, and with him "XI" kills.
Appropriately METAL CHURCH leads off "XI" with a track titled "Reset". That's exactly what the song feels like, a whisk back to Howe's first tenure. "Reset" is a fast-moving rocker with Howe layering two sets of vocals between modified growl and his trusty Rob Halford squeals. "Turn the page in my old age," he rasps, "now I'm at the final stage again…now I hit the button to reset." Amen. No offense intended toward Ronny Munroe whatsoever, but Mike Howe strikes instant familiarity and the band responds to him hugely. "Killing Your Time" keeps the thrusters going and it's like Howe never left. This track, like "Reset", hums along with slashing riffs, Steve Unger's surfing bass and Jeff Plate's exultant whacking.
The rumbling single "No Tomorrow" shows off not just Howe, but the entire band, and they wreak total havoc. Funny enough, it's the successive track, "Signal Path", which should've been delegated as the album's single. "Signal Path" is forceful yet catchy as hell, and it assuredly rings of "Badlands", in particular the acoustic sections. Mike Howe plays along by dropping his smoothest chops on those segments while toughening up on the harder yet melodic moments. Even funnier, "Signal Path" all but matches "Badlands"' counter ticks at 7:12 to the latter's 7:21. At least it's highly unlikely "Signal Path" will suffer the indignity of a video edit.
Taking another seven minutes on the slower, jive-filled "Sky Falls In", Mike Howe snarls and grates in tandem with the song's shucking strut. The stitching effects emitted from the riffs on "Needle and Suture" puts Howe into a snug comfort zone where he whispers enticingly and yowls once the verses surge into the slammed-up choruses. This leads into a soaring solo section that rings of unmitigated glory. "Shadow" is glorious. Here Howe lurks behind the song's groovy funk licks before hollering overtop the rocked-up choruses. It's a vibe not yet attempted in this band, yet METAL CHURCH takes it to the house.
"Soul Eating Machine" is a comfy if unassuming power rocker set amidst the slower, flowing end portion of the album where Kurdt Vanderhoof shows his psychedelic side on "It Waits" and "Blow Your Mind". Mike Howe plays his part by baiting and switching between murmurs and wails. "Suffer Fools" is a smidge more full-frontal, and Howe spearheads the band as if daring them to tail him. It ends this album with a sonic exclamation point and affirms why many fans regard him as the definitive METAL CHURCH vocalist.
Following the new MEGADETH album, METAL CHURCH's "XI" is the second straight triumph for the old school this year. Mike Howe is brilliant on this album, and Kurdt Vanderhoof, never a slacker on the frets, unleashes his pent up joy throughout "XI". Thirty years ago, these bands were legends-in-the-making. Now, they're proving to the metal world why they keep fighting for their right to stay.