Review Summary: If you can see past the atrocious cover and frankly embarrassing album art then what lies beneath is an often forgotten but genuinely enjoyable, fistpumper of a metal album.
I was always told from a young age to never judge a book by its cover, sound words of advice indeed from Mrs Kimble and although I don’t think she ever intended it to be applied to heavy metal albums, Metal Church's 5th output is fine evidence of such wisdom. If you can see past the atrocious cover and frankly embarrassing album art then what lies beneath is an often forgotten but genuinely enjoyable, fistpumper of a metal album.
At this stage in their career the band had drifted slowly away from the thrashier sound found on the first couple of Church records and although there are a few heavier moments lurking throughout, this is pretty much a straight up good time metal album with as many leanings towards heavy rock and power metal as there are to Thrash. That said, the bands penchant for writing memorable footstomping tracks with great sing-along choruses remains as strong as ever and there’s plenty of good stuff to be found here.
Hanging in the Balance, released in 1993 followed a brief hiatus for the band in which founding member and guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof perused his side project Vanderhoof. The core sound of Metal Church has always been rooted in Vanderhoof's riffs and although he was no longer in the bands lineup upon the release of this album he remains the primary writer and has credits on every track on the disk other than acoustic instrumental effort ''Lovers & Madmen''. Needless to say the guitar work is still superbly executed and there's a nice variety of string dabbling on show. John Marshall and original axeman Craig Wells mix up the thrashier riffing found on tracks like 'Conductor' and 'Little Boy' with plenty of concise more traditional metal influenced riffs and ample clean, at times even folky sounding passages. The lead work is also classily done, with memorable melodic leads featuring throughout and on each occasion serving the tracks admirably without digressing into too much unwarranted exhibitionism.
The album also has some nice clean production work on it which definitely contributes to the lighter more accessible feel of this Church record whilst allowing Duke Erickson's base lines plenty of space to shine. The drum work is well handled by Kirk Arrington, often driving the tracks forward under some of the less heavy guitar arrangements whilst comfortably supporting the more intense riffage when required. There isn't too much technicality on display but the performance is a fine example of how best to serve the feel of a song and his rythms fit superbly within the context of each cut.
The vocals by Mike Howe are a big part of the albums sound, offering a powerful melodic delivery to the work but with enough grit to stop them sounding too cheesy. The vocals are another major factor that separate this era from the bands early work and although not as harsh or intense sounding as David Wayne I find Howe's confident display equally enjoyable as he belts out lyrical themes ranging from growing old and vampires to more politically rooted efforts on subjects like nuclear war.
With so much going for it then, where does this work fall a little short? Well to start with I find that the album runs out of steam abit towards the end with the last four tracks (including the ''Low to Overdrive'' bonus found on most editions) probably representing the weakest songs of the bunch and clocking in at over an hour the album wouldn’t have missed a couple of weaker numbers being omitted. The aforementioned instrumental ''Lovers & Madmen'' would also offer a nice change of pace if it didn’t follow on from the rather boring and out of place ''End of the Age'' which incidentally is improved greatly by some decent lead work half way through its unnecessarily drawn out run time. The album also opens with a strange choice in ''Gods of Second Chance'', although a really good song in its own right I feel its slow base intro and mid tempo riffs don’t have the same impact as if they had kicked things off with the brilliant ''No Friend of Mine'' or another similarly up-tempo number.
Saying that there’s still plenty to enjoy, ''Losers in the Game'' opens with a pleasant clean part before the drum driven main riff kicks in and serves to get the album going after the opener. We then move on to the chugging ''Hypnotized'' before the album really let’s loose with the next five tracks probably representing the srongest on the album. There’s great riffs, massive chorus' and catchy vocals aplenty, none more so than on ''Down to the River'' whilst ''Waiting for a Saviour'' is definitely a highlight and as good a fistpumping rock ballad as you could hope for as well as featuring some of the best lead work on the cd.
This album is definitely overshadowed by some of the bands more iconic work and hugely let down by unforgivable art work and a poorly worked track order but it still puts a smile on my face every time I listen to it and I genuinely enjoy this as much as anything the band has put out. It's abit of a forgotten gem by the Church, coming out as it did in amongst the grunge onslaught of the early nineties coupled with a change in sound and a more experimental approach from the group but give this a chance and after a couple of listens most of these tracks will be stuck in your head for some time to come. It’s not the fastest, most technical or groundbreaking work out there but its still good fun and a great accessible metal album.
No Friend of Mine
Waiting for a Saviour
Down to the River
Additional Info: Look out for a Jerry Cantrell cameo lead on ''Gods of Second Chance'' and for those who still buy cd's, this bad boy can be picked up in a double release by SPV alongside Metal Church Live, which is a great example of the bands early work.