Metal Church and Hatchet, Vaudeville Mews, Des Moines, Iowa, April 3, 2016

“I just can’t believe my ears, some music out these days
The human factor has diminished in, oh so many ways
Fancy footwork gets top bill and I’ll put on such a show
One more MIDI cable and my band is ready to go”

-Metal Church, “The Human Factor”

That song, featured on the ’92 various artists compilation Thrash Patrol, was my introduction to the Mike Howe-led Metal Church. A few years later, upon the recommendation of my friend K. R. Cook, I bought the fantastic Blessing in Disguise and The Human Factor, followed eventually by the first two David Wayne-fronted records.

Metal Church has a convoluted lineup history. Founder, primary composer, and guitarist, Kurdt Vanderhoof, is the man who has kept the Church candles aflame, even if only from behind the scenes during Howe’s initial tenure. Vanderhoof returned to performing beginning with a ’98-’01 reunion with the now deceased Wayne. Ronny Munroe vocalized on four further albums before his ’14 departure allowed for Howe’s reinstatement. Wayne’s Udo/Halford-influenced shrieks were great on Church’s first two LPs (The Dark is my favorite), and Munroe is respected (he rekindled my interest with The Weight of the World), but it was ex-Heretic frontman Howe who I think bettered the group, helping to create more sophisticated and creative albums. The announcement of his return was exciting and, due to the larger scope of touring and greater new album sales compared to the Ronny years, has been well received.

My friend Oscar and I witnessed Vanderhoof and Co. live for the first time when they stopped at Vaudeville Mews to promote their latest CD, XI. Joining them were San Francisco’s Hatchet, and warmups Superchief, Lyin’ Heart, and Unity. I’m not too familiar with Hatchet’s studio output, but they sure raged on stage and are one of the better retro-thrash acts I’ve seen. Drummer Ben Smith was especially fun to watch, swinging his hair while sustaining the frantic tempo.

I have overwhelming praise for Metal Church’s performance and each member’s respect for the fans the night of April 3. They now join bands like Anthrax, D.R.I., Testament, and Overkill as the best I’ve seen in concert. Mike Howe seems to have only changed his hair style, as his stage presence has not deteriorated even after two decades away from the music scene. He has nurtured his voice well, as it still sounds clean and distinct, with the range of his heyday. Even though Vanderhoof, outside of composing, and the rest of the band were not in Howe’s first Church, they had no problem faithfully replicating tracks from each album sans Masterpeace and the Munroe releases. Stylistically, M.C. has range within the metal genre, represented in the fine set: adventurous, heavy selections (“Fake Healer,” “Badlands”), direct speed and thrash (“Reset,” “Killing Your Time”), loud and proud traditional metal (“Beyond the Black,” “Start the Fire”), epic heavy ballads (“Watch the Children Pray,” “In Mourning”), and the contagious “Date With Poverty” that sounds like Pornograffitti-era Extreme if they were thrash metal. Kurdt Vanderhoof anchored the band with his durable guitar work, and displayed entertaining assorted faces. Kirk Arrington, one of the great unsung thrash drummers, is missed, but successor Jeff Plate is a more-than-worthy pro. Plate’s fellow Savatage / Trans-Siberian Orchestra bandmate, the accomplished Chris Caffery, is subbing on tour for the band’s freshest guitarist, Rick Van Zandt. Steve Unger, the second most tenured member, supplied sturdy support rhythmically and vocally. All members, representing the past and present of Metal Church, succeeded in a comeback, and are on the heels of their ’80s and ’90s contemporaries who have also recently released good late career recordings.

The band affably volunteered to sign merchandise and take photos with fans after the show, forgoing the trendy, sleazy meet and greet ticket sale route. I was happy to have some CDs signed, and surprised Vanderhoof with a compilation of his old punk band, The Lewd. He was credited as “Blobbo” at that time. I snapped some pix with each member, and Caffery was amusing when responding to fans’ ‘thank-yous’ with “Thank you for thanking me.” Howe was the star, and remained humble and accommodating, even though some fans may have been a bit overbearing. Oh, and yes, here is the audio of the whole set that I recorded. Now, venture onward to support Metal Church, as more it will strengthen the chances of the band avoiding another hiatus that would likely end the history of the hard working metallers.

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