Released: 2016, Rat Pak Records
I never really cared for the Ronny Munroe era of Metal Church. There were some decent songs, but it always felt like Ronny was just biding his time until the return of Mike Howe. Sure, it is easy to say that now that it has actually come to pass, but I always felt like Munroe was living on borrowed time. Now, 23 years since Howe last recorded with Metal Church on the excellent HANGING IN THE BALANCE (despite atrocious cover art), he makes a triumphant return on XI.
Fans and discussion boards have long debated who was the better singer: Howe or Wayne. No matter your take, Howe clearly had the upper hand when it came to doubling his voice in high and low harmonies. Howe returns to this tactic on album opener and a highlight track in “Reset.” Vanderhoof supplies traditional metal riffs for what is an excellent beginning for band and fans. Howe wastes no time in demonstrating his arsenal is fully intact, showing no sign of the ravages of age or rust. The next two tracks follow roughly the same up tempo style, with “No Tomorrow” concluding the opening trio and serving as the album’s first single.
“Signal Path” hearkens back to Metal Church’s uncanny ability to be mid-tempo, melodic and catchy. However, it is the excellent “Sky Falls In” that borrows from HITB’s excellent “Hypnotized” for structure and nostalgia, a brooding and powerful tune that shows Howe’s delivery is so much more potent and studied than Munroe’s. For fans of the band’s thrashier moments, “Needle And Suture” delivers with its triplet chugs and an inspired performance from Howe. Musically, the album came together very quickly, the band finishing XI in under a year from the return of Howe until its release. This usually is a sign of inspiration when an irresistible force enters the equation, as the Howe and Vanderhoof collaboration clearly reveals.
The album sounds great too, the production avoiding some of the modern loudness clichés. Yes, like many MC albums, there are some moments of filler, but mostly this is an album full of good songs that should satisfy many fans that endured the lean years before Howe’s return. It’s also great to see the band getting the recognition it deserves, with XI hitting 57 on the Billboard top 200 charts and Metal Church at long last being sought for festivals and tours rather than obscurity. Hail, the return of Mike Howe, for there is no denying he is the catalyst that has sparked Vanderhoof and band to reach for greater heights.