Review Summary: Metal Church's fourth offering has them changing their sound while still remaining true to their thrash roots...with mixed results(The following concept review is based on the album The Human Factor by the band Metal Church. Some details in the review reflect the time period in which the album was released while other details reflect my thoughts while listening to the album.)
In the year 1980, the Metal Church was built. This was no ordinary church, however. People never came to this church to hear about God or to say prayers. They came to the church for one reason, and one reason only: to listen to brutal, straight up thrash.
Every few years, the Metal Church would hold a service for a few hours. The band that led the services were pioneers of the thrash metal genre, and the services were extremely popular at the time. The pastor preached lyrics of violence and war with a voice that was very peculiar for a thrash metal band. Pastor Wayne, the first pastor of Metal Church, started the band's tradition of having power metal vocals. This fusion of power and thrash metal was what first attracted me to the band.
I attended the band's first, self-titled service in 1984. I absolutely loved it. Metal Church's power, intensity, and sheer aggression made some of the songs they played in their 1984 service some of my favorite thrash metal songs of all time. Their next service, held in 1986, was just as fantastic as their first. This was the age of thrash, and they were exactly what metalheads wanted during the 80s. Unfortunately, Pastor Wayne left after their 1986 service, and was replaced by Mike Howe. He was a worthy pastor, and continued Metal Church's thrash legacy. Their third service was held in 1989. Although musically it was a step down, it their fanbase still continued to expand nonetheless.
Thrash metal started to decline in the following decade, with once-thrash bands such as Metallica taking a more commercial, hard rock approach to their music. On March 26, 1991, Metal Church reopened for their first service of the decade: The Human Factor
service. Naturally, I decided to attend. My office was closed and I had absolutely nothing to do that day anyway. I wasn't crazy about their Blessing In Disguise
service, but I enjoyed their first two services enough to attend their fourth. I didn't know what to expect, as Metal Church have always pretty much stuck to playing straight-up thrash and this formula has worked well for them in the past. However, I knew that times were changing, and if Metal Church were going to survive they had no choice but to change with the times.
I walked into the Metal Church in 1991 not knowing what to expect. However, what I saw still shocked me. The church itself had expanded; there were more seats inside than ever before. Obviously the band had expected a much larger crowd to attend. But that isn't what shocked me. The shocking part was the fact that there were only about thirty people inside! On one side of the church sat the devoted Metal Church fanboys, each one of them wearing a black shirt proudly displaying the Metal Church logo on it. On the other side sat a small group of thrash metal enthusiasts. The group was pretty varied, and I could tell what bands they were a fan of by the shirt they were wearing; some wore Slayer shirts, others wore Testament shirts, a couple of them wore Megadeth shirts, and several of them wore Metallica shirts. I took a seat next to a Metallica fan and patiently waited for the service to begin.
THE SERVICE, PART 1
A door in the back of the church flew open, and out walked the pastor, Mike Howe. The Metal Church fanboys screamed and clapped with excitement as he walked onto the church's stage.
"All rise!" announces Pastor Howe.
The Metal Church fanboys were the first to stand. Each one of them sprung to their feet on command, as if they simply could not wait any longer for the service to begin. In fact, they shot off their chairs so quickly that I sincerely wondered if their seat was on fire. I rose obediently, yet rather slowly, as I was not particularly excited for the day's proceedings but still looking forward to them nonetheless. The thrash enthusiasts did not stand; clearly they could care less about the service. In response, Pastor Howe shot the thrashers a scornful look, to which they begrudgingly stood up, cursing quietly under their breath.
From the church's entrance, the band members arrived. They walked down the aisles to their respective positions on the stage. As the band sets up, Pastor Howe takes to the microphone.
"The first song we will playing today," spoke Pastor Howe, "is titled: 'The Human Factor.' Hopefully, this song will teach all of you to stop stealing audio samples from bands without their permissions!"
At that, the Metal Church fanboys applaud and cheer wildly, obviously ignoring the fact that they are in a church, while the thrashers look awkwardly at each other. I, however, was pleasantly surprised by this announcement. Metal Church has never been known for lyrics based around social commentary, and I was curious to see where Metal Church's new lyrical direction will take them. I clap with everyone else, and the song starts up.
"The Human Factor" opens off the service in a strange manner. Rather than just starting right up with a drum or guitar solo, the song begins with guitar feedback and random noises from the drums. I uncomfortably glance over at the Metallica enthusiast next to me, who had a look of disapproval on his face. Suddenly, the drummer, Kirk Arrington, stands up on his seat. He clicks his drumsticks together, and with a shout of "1, 2, 3, 4!" the guitarist runs to the center of the stage and delivers an explosive riff. The drums begin to pound, the bass picks up, and the song truly begins. Despite the bizarre and undeniably lazy intro, "The Human Factor" is a brilliant song. The minimal drumming and chugging guitar give the song a nice groove, a quality almost unheard of when it comes to Metal Church songs. While the song contains some great guitar solos, bassist Duke Erickson's solo near the end steals the song. As for the vocals, Pastor Howe does a remarkable job. His high-pitched, power metal voice is full of passion and energy, making the occasionally over-political lyrics sound convincing as ever. Pretty much everything about the song works, and it is one of the best songs that was played that day.
Once the song ends, the fanboys begin to clap uncontrollably once more. The thrashers, however, were not so pleased. They stood up and begin shouting insults at the band. The Slayer fan, obviously disappointed with Metal Church's lack of brutality, stormed out of the church. He was followed by the other thrashers, each one of them displeased by Metal Church's lack of musical progression. I ignored them as they left, for I was quite impressed with the first song. I watched as Pastor Howe's eyes scanned across the church. My eyes did the same; the church was looking as empty as it had ever been.
This minor setback seemed to not even phase the pastor. He approached the microphone and announced the names of the next two songs, "Date With Poverty" and "The Final Word." Pastor Howe nods to the lead guitarist, and he begins to play.
Unlike its predecessor, "Date With Poverty" starts right up with a guitar solo. The riff is extremely catchy, and once more is far more groove-oriented than most Metal Church songs. The drumming is an improvement over the title trick, but still remains somewhat simplistic. The lyrics on this song tackle the issue of people descending into poverty. However, the lyrics are far from subtle this time around, and are awkwardly in-your-face throughout the song. This is a forgivable offense, however, as Pastor Howe's vocals remain powerful and continue to sell even the dumbest and most of lyrics. Despite rather weak lyrics and simplistic playing from the bass and drums, "Date With Poverty" remains a very good song due to an amazing mid-song guitar solo and a riff that makes it one of the catchiest Metal Church songs in existence.
"The Final Word" begins with a chugging guitar riff, which continues over the rhythm guitar until Pastor Howe's vocals kick in. Another extremely memorable song, it is the polar opposite of "Date With Poverty." While "Date With Poverty" is a product of Metal Church's new sound, "The Final Word" reminds us of their thrash roots. It is song that, if not for the political lyrics, could have easily been one of their songs from the 1980s. The guitar solos during the song are top-notch. Guitarists Craig Wells and John Marshall shred to their heart's content, adding to the song's incredible intensity. Also, unlike the previous song, the lyrical subject matter of "The Final Word" is left somewhat ambiguous, as the lyrics can pertain to a variety of political topics. This works favorably, as the lyrics don't distract from the thrashiness of the song.
After "The Final Word," the band stops playing, and the lights dim. Pastor Howe lights a candle and holds it up to the audience. "Let us now take a moment to mourn." speaks Pastor Howe, "We shall now play a song of mourning...for all the children who have died." Pastor Howe bowed his head and lifted the candle over it. With that, the next song, "In Mourning," starts up.
Not only do I feel that "In Mourning" is one of the best Metal Church songs of all time; I believe it to be one of the most powerful thrash metal songs of the 90s. The song begins with a somber, reverbing guitar solo and softly pounding songs. The rhythm guitar joins, and the song continues to build up, becoming louder, and louder, and louder, until finally climaxing at almost a minute in. What follows is nothing short of a rollercoaster; full of shredding guitar solos, insane vocals, and very inspiration lyrics. The guitars highlight the instrumental portions of the song, which contain excellently-written solos. The bass holds the songs together during the guitar solos and even the drumming steps up, providing the instrumental sections with a solid backbone. As for the vocals, they are absolutely remarkable. Like the previous songs, Pastor Howe sings each word with tons of energy enthusiasm. However, the fiery emotion he puts into the song's lyrics is what makes "In Mourning" so spectacular. The lyrics, concerning the unrecognized deaths of lonely children, is quite a heavy subject, even for a Metal Church song. However, the pastor pulls it off with ease. His vocal approach slightly changes over the course of the song to fit the mood of the lyrics, be it angry, sad, or brutally honest. Simply put, "In Mourning" is outstanding. It was the highlight of the evening and made the entire service worth attending.
After the song ended, the lights turned back on and fanboys began applauding uproariously. Once the crowd settled down, Pastor Howe began to speak into the microphone. He announced the next two songs they would playing, "In Harms Way" and "In Due Time." I couldn't help but notice that three songs all had titles that started with the word "In." In all honesty, the titles of the songs during this service are nowhere near as creative as they were in the past ("Beyond the Black" and "Merciless Onslaught," two songs from their 1984 service, are some of the coolest thrash metal song names of all time).
As I watched the band prepare for the next song, I couldn't help but notice that Pastor Howe was beginning to looked really tired. Perhaps all the power metal shouts on "In Mourning" wore him out, I thought. I truly hoped that this wouldn't affect the band's sound, as I was really enjoying the service thus far. The guitarist stepped forward, and the band resumed playing.
THE SERVICE, PART 2
"In Harm's Way" begins with a very pretty acoustic guitar intro and clean, soft vocals. The intro works astoundingly well; it creates a melancholy atmosphere almost immediately. The acoustic guitar solos, which appear every few verses, are definitely the song's highlights. The song also contains some nice drum work and a fantastic guitar solo. However, the song is a definite downgrade from "In Mourning." For one, "In Harm's Way" contains essentially the same lyrical subject matter as "In Mourning": dead, lonely kids who are neglected by their parents. As if one song about that subject wasn't depressing enough. The lyrics of "In Mourning" addresses the subject matter in a much more skillful way than "In Harm's Way" as well. This song takes a very gentle approach to their topic, which makes it seem depressing and preachy. "In Mourning," on the other hand, takes a confident, bombastic approach, in which the band spill out their heart and soul and let out every thought and emotion they have about the topic at hand. Although both songs have nearly the same subject matter, "In Mourning" is gripping and powerful, while "In Harm's Way" just makes me want to cry. In fact, once the song ended, I looked around at the audience. Most of them actually were
crying, especially the men. I definitely wasn't in the mood to cry, especially during a metal song in front of a bunch of guys! I hoped the next song would be thrashier than the last. Luckily, it was.
"In Due Time" is another song which borrows heavily from Metal Church's days of pure thrash. The riff is very catchy and the vocals return to power metal screams. Unfortunately, however, "In Due Time" was one of the least interesting songs of the entire service. Clocking in at just over four minutes-long, it was the shortest song played that day. It feels short, too; the song begins and ends without making much of an impact. Also, it strays far from the previously politically-themed, groove-oriented sound that had been established on most of the first five songs. This is certainly not a bad thing; however, the song does feel a bit out of place. On the other hand, the inclusion of a pure thrash metal song was a nice relief.
After "In Due Time," Pastor Howe steps up to the microphone. "And now," begins Pastor Howe, "we will be taking a short minute break. Please feel free to say some silent prayers to yourself in the meantime." With that, each band member did briefly split up. One of the guitarist went to the water fountain for a drink, while the other started to eat a sandwich. The drummer stepped down off the stage and quietly chatted with one of the woman in the audience, who was wearing a Metal Church shirt and was obviously infatuated with him. The bassist softly practiced his part for the next song. As for Pastor Howe, he went over to the drum kit, laid his head on the crash cymbal, and instantly fell asleep. He peacefully napped through the entire break. After about ten minutes, all the members of the band returned to their positions on the stage. All but the pastor, who remained asleep for the next several minutes. When he awoke, he looked even more tired than before, the nap obviously not helping. He shrugged his shoulders slowly walked to the front of the stage.
"Our next three songs are called 'Agent Green,' 'Flee From Reality,' and 'Betrayed.'" Pastor Howe announced with a yawn. The audience, still very much awake, let out a cheer, having anxiously waited through the break for the band to start playing again.
The next song, "Agent Green," is plagued by the fact that the band was on the verge of falling asleep while playing. It begins with an acoustic guitar intro, and while it is fitting with the rest of the song, it is far less impressive than the likes of "In Harm's Way." Pastor Howe starts right in with softly sung, almost spoken vocals. The rhythm guitar kicks in, and the song truly begins. While "Agent Green" is not a bad song by any stretch, everything about it seems tired. First, the slightly silly lyrics attempt to make a political point like the first songs of the service, but it never quite gets there due to the lyrics' repetitive nature. The riff, while admittedly catchy, gets annoying rather quickly. Guitar solos have their moments during the song, but fail to impress. Like most of the previous songs, the drumming is simplistic and uninteresting. During the song, the pastor was visibly exhausted, yet he was still able to retain his powerful vocals. That being said, however, the portions of the song with softly sung vocals are rather boring and he also disappointingly never implements any of his power metal screams. "Agent Green" is, no doubt, the most boring song that was played at the service.
"Flee From Reality" begins with a very promising guitar solo. Pastor Howe seems to have woken up a little, as his vocals are much improved over "Agent Green." Just like "In Due Time," "Flee From Reality" is another song that ditches Metal Church's new sound and implements a very thrashier approach. However, this song is a better throwback than "In Due Time." The guitar chugs away and shreds while the drumming reaches its highest intensity of the entire service. The only disappointing part of the song is one of the guitar solos, which is lackluster and does nothing but rehash the song's riff. The following guitar solo is brilliant, however, and makes up for the previous one. Clearly, the band had a burst of energy for "Flee From Reality," making it one of the more exciting songs that were played at the service.
With one final scream, the song ends, making the audience roar with delight. Everyone in the band really pushed themselves on "Flee From Reality." However, this may have been a bad thing, as I could see that the last song clearly wore out everyone in the band beyond belief, especially the drummer, who was struggling to keep his eyes open. Still, the band continued playing.
The band's sleepiness deeply affects the next song: "Betrayed." It is the weakest of the service and was most likely a filler song. The guitar riff is slow and becomes stale over the course of the song. The drumming is very basic, never straying very far from the bass, which is practically unnoticeable. Pastor Howe's sleepiness shines through in his voice, with lacks most of the energy he had before. The song has no proper conclusion, either; it just stops out of nowhere. Overall, "Betrayed" weighs down the service quite a bit and is a weak follow-up a very energetic song.
The song ended, and although it was extremely unimpressive, the response by the fanboys was still positive. I looked at Pastor Howe, who looked as exhausted as ever. He glanced back, and before he could say anything, he collapsed onto the ground. The guitarists followed, and so did the drummer and bassist. I couldn't blame them; they were ridiculously exhausted from the day's proceedings. I would most likely have passed out from exhaustion too.
Suddenly, the church's doors flung open. In ran Kurdt Vanderhoof, Metal Church's founder and former guitarist, who was serving as an arranger for the band. In his hand he carried a five-pack of Red Bull energy drinks. He ran up to the band members and woke each one of them up individuality. He then proceeded to hand each one of them a Red Bull. Pastor Howe, along with everyone else in the band, opened their energy drinks and drank their entire bottles with one gigantic swig. Vanderhoof ran off stage, and Pastor Howe approached the microphone.
With buckets of newfound energy, Pastor Howe swung up his arms and let out a scream of "WOOOOOOO!!!!!" into the microphone. The drummer randomly starts banging and the guitarists start shredding uncontrollably. The energy drink worked; the band was as crazy as I have ever seen them. With one gigantic bolt of energy, Pastor Howe screams out "All right, everybody! Get ready for THE FIGHT SONG!!!" The audience screams with delight, and the final song of the service begins.
As expected, "The Fight Song" is by far the most exciting song of the entire service. Every band member excels at playing their part. The guitar solos are incredibly well written, the riff is memorable, the drumming is aggressive and intense, and Pastor Howe's vocals are back to their power metal glory. This song features the best shredding out of any other song played in the service, forcing everybody in the audience, including myself, to head bang uncontrollably. The lyrics aren't overly-political or preachy, yet the point still gets across. The point: fight for your rights! The chorus is extremely catchy as well; a chorus I will, no doubt, be singing in the shower for weeks. "The Fight Song" is a fantastic album closer, a song that made me forget all about the lackluster song that preceding it.
"Thank you!" yelled Pastor Howe. He then looked directly at the fanboys in the audience, and, referencing their classic 1984 service, screamed "And remember...we are the Metaaaaaaal...."
"CHUUUUUUUURCH!" replied the fanboys. I'm not ashamed to admit that I joined the fanboys in completing the pastor's sentence. It was one hell of a service, and I was sad to see it end. The band bowed and exited the stage, ending the service.
I exited the church and walked onto the street. I didn't live very far away, and I decided it was a nice day to walk home. As I walked, I spotted the thrash metal enthusiasts, sitting outside of a cafe all huddled together around a CD player. The man with the Metallica shirt, who stood next to me during the beginning of the service, saw me walk by.
"Hey, you're the guy from the Metal Church service!" the man shouted at me.
I stopped walking and nodded. "Get your ass over here!" he shouted, "We're listening to the new Metallica album. Wanna hear?"
"Sure, why not?" I replied, knowing that I had nothing better to do that day anyway and I hadn't listened to the new Metallica album yet. I joined the thrashers at the cafe and they placed the the album, their self-titled "black album," into the CD player. The first song, "Enter Sandman" came on, and I was sold almost instantly. The thrashers and I spent the next hour or so listening to album; we all absolutely loved it.
Why do I mention this in the story? Well, after I listened to the "black album," I completely forgot all about the Metal Church service I had just attended. It wasn't until a few days later that I remembered the service I attended on March 26. I felt terrible for forgetting: I thoroughly enjoyed the service. It may not have measured up to their classic services of the 80s, but it was still extremely enjoyable. As the early 90s passed by, I completely forgot all about the service. The early 90s held some of the best metal albums of all time. The Megadeth album Rust In Peace
was released in 1990 and was arguably the magnum opus of the thrash metal genre. Pantera's Cowboys From Hell
, released the same year, would define metal for the entire decade. Death's Human
influenced an entire generation of death metal bands who would follow in Death's footsteps.
Metal Church's The Human Factor
showed us that Metal Church simply did not belong in the 90s. Metal Church are at their best when they preach lyrics of destruction, atomic war, and general mayhem. They are at their best when the guitars shred uncontrollably. They are at their best when the drums play with military-like intensity. They are at their best when the vocals are screamed, growled, and booming. Although they attempted to become a radio-friendly, hard rock sounding metal band during the 90s, people never caught on to them, and they quickly faded out of existence.
I never went to another Metal Church service after their The Human Factor
service in 1991. From what I hear, the pastors kept changing, band members came, went, and came back again, and the fanbase diminished into nothing. I remember when the band broke up in 1994 and 2009. Throughout this time, the Metal Church remained completely uninhabited. Over the 90s, the Metal Church became worn down. The walls started falling apart, and the seats which once held thousands of screaming fans were soaked with dust. The city tried to tear down the Metal Church down, but they never could.
In 2008, the band returned and refurbished the Metal Church back to most of its former glory. Still, from what I hear, no one comes to Metal Church services anymore. Despite this, the band still plays and the pastor still sings. But why do they do this? No one sees them anymore. Most people don't even realize they still exist. They became obsolete quite a long time ago. So why do they still play?
The answer: because no one can tear down the Metal Church. Whether you come there for services or not...the Metal Church will always stand.