Any new Metal Church is guaranteed to pique interest amongst the old farts around Last Rites HQ, but this particular new Metal Church has been something of a point of polite contention around the break-room water cooler.
On the one side, you’ve got those among us who contend that, while it isn’t as great as Blessing In Disguise, or the self-titled, David Wayne-fronted debut, or even as good as Mike Howe’s return for 2016’s XI, Damned If You Do is nevertheless a fine example of why Metal Church still has the spark, and that’s because they’re still fun, all these years later. These people are correct.
And on the other side, there are those among us who think that Damned is a collection of warmed-over songs, with a few rising above the others, but mostly it’s just a weaker offering from a band that has done much better many times before. These people are incorrect, but only barely.
Mostly, Damned If You Do is XI again, but not quite as strong, so there is something of that feeling of leftover ideas. Maybe it’s just that the newness of Mike Howe’s return has worn off, or maybe it’s that the material isn’t quite as good — something of a second sophomore slump — or maybe it’s both. But I can’t stop myself from thinking of Damned as XI-point-1: It’s virtually identical in sound, and of course, it’s the same style. Metal Church isn’t going to change now — you get what you get; no surprises. Here as on that previous effort, Damned proves that Howe still sounds great, and he and Kurdt Vanderhoof can still write a damned good metal tune, somewhere at the intersection of trad and thrash. Vanderhoof’s production is modern without being too polished. The performances are those of a veteran band, tight and capable, and one that mostly knows enough to play to its strengths — start riff, build tension, hit with a big chorus, release, repeat.
Metal Church has always had a knack for great album openers — “Beyond The Black,” “Fake Healer,” “Reset” — and the title track to Damned If You Do furthers that trend, all hard-driving kick-driven pulse and instant-hook chorus, with a killer breakdown to pilfer some of the relentless stomp of “Fake Healer.” The moody “The Black Things” follows, and the straight-ahead ripper of “By The Numbers,” with some chunky riffing and another big chorus built for sing-shout-snarling along in the front row.
And all is well through those first three, ‘til the midtempo melodic mediocrity of “Revolution Underway.” Though they’ve always had melody to spare, Metal Church is at their best when tempering that melody against muscular trad metal riffing, and backing that metal down a notch into more hard rock territory effectively neuters their formula. (See also: “The Powers That Be” which at least had the sense to be the last track on the otherwise impeccable Blessing In Disguise.) Riff-wise, “Revolution” relies too heavily on a melodic guitar and vocal interplay better suited for the likes of Dokken or some other bigger haired outfit from the same golden age (and I mean no disrespect to Dokken — it’s just a different type of band). It’s a shame that “Revolution” gets underway so early, since it’s the first of the twin stumbles that knock Damned If You Do down a notch, from the Very Good to the Good.
Three respectable-but-not-phenomenal rockers separate “Revolution” from the album’s most unseemly hurdle, the lame swagger of “Monkey Finger,” another foray into hard rock that is handily Damned’s low point, by a pretty wide margin. Mostly riffless, hamstrung with a ridiculous lyric and a clunky melody, and even sporting a dreadfully boring guitar solo, “Monkey Finger” is a forgettable attempt at a midtempo rocker, and one that’s best left forgotten. Follow-up “Out Of Balance” rights the ship, for the most part — it’s not the finest song on hand, though it manages to better balance the melodic and the metallic. “Balance” would’ve hung in among the least interesting on Church’s best records, but here, it’s at least a welcome return to something more fiery after the lunky lumber of “Monkey Finger.” “The War Electric” closes on a chunkier, thrashier note, not a standout but far from an embarrassment.
So the total, of course, for those keeping score is three stellar tracks, five solid ones, and two absolute clunkers amidst an album of ten songs, and numerically, that’s a pretty good margin of success. As much as I clearly enjoy Damned If You Do, I have to admit that, of course, it isn’t as strong as Blessing In Disguise, or as The Human Factor. All the Mike Howe Metal Church records have ranged from Stellar to Pretty Damned Good, and Damned If You Do doesn’t break the trend, though it’s closer to the latter than to the former. Make of that what you will — if you like Metal Church, and if you liked XI, then there’s plenty here to like. And if you don’t, and you didn’t, then we can discuss all of that over by the water cooler at break time.
Metal Church “Damned If You Do” (2018) – Rat Pak Label