I consider myself a pretty lucky music fan in general. Over the years, I have managed to see many, if not most, of my favorite artists perform live at least once. There are a few top-tier bands, of course, who have managed to elude my concert bucket list: the Rages, the Angras, the King’s X’s, the Deep Purples. The most hallowed sanctuary of metal, Metal Church, to be precise, fell into that category as well. They have stood tall as one of my all-time favorite bands ever since I discovered The Human Factor album as a junior in high school, nearly 25 years ago. Yet, I never had the opportunity to see the legendary Seattle metal mavens live – until now, that is.
When Metal Church announced last year that they would be continuing on – with classic-period singer Mike Howe on board – and recording a new album, I was all over it. To me, Metal Church has always represented the embodiment of heavy metal incarnate, the ultimate metal band, if you will. Their music expertly combines the traditional structure and melodic focus of British Heavy Metal with the speed and technicality of thrash, without quite venturing into the more frenetic aggression of that latter closely-related sub-genre. Yet, they never achieved the stratospheric success levels of their ‘80s peers in the speed-metal game. Regardless, albums such as Metal Church, The Dark, Blessing in Disguise, The Human Factor, and Hanging in the Balance, touched the metal-headed hearts of many, myself included. So, when I found out that the almighty Church would be performing on the East side of Michigan at the end of March, it was a no-brainer.
After making the pleasant two-hour solo trek from my hometown of Grand Rapids to the Detroit suburb of Westland, I arrived at The Token Lounge a little after 6:30 p.m. Immediately upon arrival I heard the slicing gallop of “Needle and Suture,” off Metal Church’s new album, XI, blasting from the car stereo next to me. Yes, these were my kind of fellow Church parishioners. The Token Lounge is a relatively small but tasteful rock club, with the stage facing the right side of the room and the bar on the left as one enters the front door. I quickly grabbed myself the requisite Miller High Life and turned my attention to the action onstage.
This show had a rather early start time, so the surprising strains of strummed acoustic guitars already greeted my ears as I entered The Token Lounge. The stage featured a unique collection of seven musicians, nearly all of whom were sporting an acoustic guitar. They call themselves Acoustikal (spelling?), and they play mellow acoustic versions of classic metal songs. It’s a promising concept, and their renditions of such iconic tunes as “Diamonds and Rust” and “Rainbow in the Dark” were faithful and pleasant. They even covered a more obscure track by Nevermore, “Believe in Nothing.” Acoustikal closed with a medley of Metallica’s “Welcome Home, Sanitarium” and a Helloween song I didn’t recognize. I tried researching this band online afterwards to verify spelling and the musicians’ identities, but I couldn’t find any sign of an internet presence for the band. They appear to be from the Detroit area, and they do what they do well.
Next up: Tyrant. No, this is not the more well-known 1980s German Tyrant, or the Australian Tyrant, or the Japanese Tyrant, or the Finnish Tyrant, or the Oklahoma Tyrant, or your grandpa’s Tyrant. No, this Tyrant is a talented young three-piece from the Mid-Michigan (Lansing) area. But yeah, they might want to think about changing, or at least modifying, their band name. These kids appear to be barely out of high school, if that, but they presented an energetic and thoroughly entertaining set. These Tyrants (of the Airwaves?) reminded me of the high-energy, thrash-fueled attack of a Raven, Angelwitch, or Motorhead. Guitarist/vocalist Philip Winters consistently delivered rhythmically complex-yet-catchy riffs, while drummer Andrew Winters provided the withering double-bass assault. Vocally, Philip Winters would do well to work on his intonation and singing in key, but overall Tyrant’s NWOBHM-esque songs are fun and energizing. Their inspired cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” was a clear highlight from their set.
The floor began to fill up quickly before Hatchet, from San Francisco, took the stage. This palpable increase in collective anticipation proved to be justified; Hatchet blew the (clichéd and proverbial) roof off the joint. Featuring the fabulous twin axe attack of Julz Ramos and Clayton Cagle, this highly-professional quartet blew me away with their polished brand of melodic and technical thrash. To say their sound was powerful and clean would be a massive understatement; likewise, their intricate and aggressive riffs are a thrash lover’s dream. The guitar tandem of Ramos and Cagle clearly stole the show with their melodic leads and precise, often neo-classical harmonies. Ramos also doubles as the band’s vocalist, and the inflection of his raspy shouts remind me of a mix of Mille Petruzza from Kreator and Tommy Baron from Coroner. Musically, Hatchet melds the best of early Metallica, Testament, and Heathen, with the rhythmic complexity of their German and Swiss brethren. Their intense, no-frills set served as the perfect warm-up for the Church. It also inspired me to immediately hit their merch booth afterwards and pick up their latest album, Fear Beyond Lunacy.
With the curtain drawn across the front of the stage, the wait for Metal Church seemed nearly interminable. During such mundane times, though, it never ceases to amaze me how easy and natural it is to connect with fellow metal brethren. I ran into a couple fellow alumni of the Warriors of Metal Festival in Columbus, Ohio, the last of which, WOM VII, was held in 2014. That fest featured some of Texas’ best as the headliners in the mighty Helstar and my friends in Dallas’ ASKA, along with a plethora of relatively unknown talent. What a small and wonderfully closely-knit family the metal community is.
Finally, with the curtains raised and the house lights dimmed, the iconic and mournful intro melodies of the Terminator theme song emanated from the P.A. speakers. As the shadowed members of the clergy took their places, with iconic guitarist and co-founder Kurdt Vanderhoof, manning stage left, the hall erupted in time with the slow, pounding triplets of “Fake Healer.” The mix was pristine and pulverizing, the energy electric as Metal Church led its congregation into the headbanging, pummeling march against corrupt preachers. Popular and newly-rejoined vocalist Mike Howe looks happy and healthy, his powerful and unique voice sounding better than ever. Standing proud over on stage right, the blond-tressed lead guitarist looked uncannily familiar. The rhythm section of former Savatage/TSO drummer and bassist Steve Unger provided the tight and unwaveringly concrete foundation. Yes folks, this was one heavy and muscular-sounding show, rivaling bands like Iced Earth and Diamond Head at their loud-and-punishing-best. Metal Church’s inimitable blend of haunting melody and speed-metal aggression was in perfect synchronicity in the live setting, leaving fists pumping the air and heads banging relentlessly.
The band refused to relent, launching into the haunting “In Mourning” off The Human Factor before unleashing a torrent of crunchy, headbanging abandon with The Dark’s “Start the Fire.” Songs off the new album, XI, such as “Reset” and the single “No Tomorrow,” sounded pristine and eviscerating in the live setting. The setlist, as expected, focused heavily on the Howe-fronted albums, featuring three songs apiece from The Human Factor and XI, and two apiece from Hanging in the Balance and The Dark. Other highlights from the set included the infectious and mournful “Watch the Children Pray,” and the dark and dynamic debut-album classic, “Beyond the Black.” By the time the exhilarating dust of “Badlands” and “The Human Factor” concluded, this long-running Metal Church fan was well-satiated.
These Church proceedings were not quite complete yet, however; the band then displayed their generosity and class by conducting a free and extensive meet-and-greet session. Oh yeah, and that mysterious guest guitarist was none other than Savatage/TSO’s Chris Caffery. To see him shred up-close in a small venue was a real treat, indeed. Then again, this whole show ranked as one of the very best I’ve seen in recent years. If Metal Church comes to your town, don’t risk not being saved. They are waiting for you in The Dark.
--Approximate setlist. 1.) Fake Healer 2.) In Mourning 3.) Start the Fire 4.)Reset 5.) Gods of Second Chance 6.) Date with Poverty 7.) No Tomorrow 8.) Watch the Children Pray 9.) No Friend of Mine 10.) Killing Your Time 11.) Beyond the Black. Encore: 12.) Badlands 13.) The Human Factor
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot