After waxing lyrical about Metal Church re-uniting with vocalist Mike Howe on 2016’s excellent “XI” album, I’m personally overjoyed that they’ve returned with almost the same line up on “Damned If You Do”. With an added promise of further revisiting their “Blessing In Disguise”/“Human Factor” sound – something they already got pretty close to on “XI”, there is much anticipation and excitement among the Metal Church faithful…and well there should be! Metal Church have kept delivering solid Metal albums throughout the years but they seem to be displaying a new energy and drive at present and this comes across even more succinctly on “Damned If You Do”.

As I said earlier, this is almost the same line-up that recorded “XI”, the only change being new drummer Stet Howland. Now this might me a minor change to some, but I always felt original recording drummer Kirk Arrington was an integral and important part of Metal Church’s definitive style, and it took someone with a similar feel for the band’s sound, his replacement Jeff Plate, to fill his boots as it were. Obviously Metal Church weren’t going to chuck any old tub-thumper into their ranks, it needed to be someone who knows just the right way to drive a Metal Church riff forward and just one listen to tracks like ‘Guillotine’ and ‘Out Of Balance’ prove Howland is the right man for the job.

Satisfied with the drumming, another slight difference between this album and “XI” is that I got a feeling that some of the songs on the previous album were conceived by Kurdt Vanderhoof and co with “A singer a bit like Mike Howe” in mind, and then it was a huge bonus that they convinced Mike to return and put his stamp on the songs. Maybe I’m wrong, but “Damned If You Do” sees classic, care-free Mike Howe all over every song, delivering the vocal lines like he did 30 years ago, fresh as you like, full of confidence and hammering home every track in his own fabulous unique manner. And talking of unique, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Metal album start with an Ommmm-style meditation chant…but this one does! I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my WTF moment when that title track starts up, but the way it unfolds around pounding double-kick drums and a killer guitar riff is genius, and really sets us up for the rest of the album.

I do always feel a sense of dread when a label, band or promotion company claims a band is returning to a style in which it once flourished and impressed. The great thing is, that this time they might just be right! This album really does pitch itself right in between “Blessing In Disguise” and “Human Factor”, without self plagiarism or particular intent – it’s like it happened because it was naturally always going to happen, and we, the listeners are left to draw any similarities for pure nostalgia’s sake. For example, maybe there’s a hint of ‘Badlands’ inhabiting ‘The Black Things’, possibly a feel of ‘Flee From Reality’ around ‘Out Of Balance’ and even some ‘Losers In The Game’ about ‘Revolution Underway’ (because we should not exclude the criminally underrated album “Hanging In The Balance” from the Mike Howe era!). But I hear this purely because the tracks have a feel or vibe to them rather than any real similarity…and to be honest because I’m looking for it – I want to be reminded. Metal Church are by no means ripping themselves off, they are basically just writing songs that sound like Metal Church from that era, a Metal Church that I was a huge fan of at that time.

No-one sounds like Metal Church with Mike Howe – no-one did and no-one does. His distinct vocals lift Metal Church’s compositions to another level. This is now a unit who have both history AND have gelled recently live – it totally shines through. Add in some great solos, riffs and arrangements and there’s no denying that there’s an energy, confidence and belief which the band possess at the moment that means this album not only fits perfectly after “Blessing In Disguise”, it is utterly relevant right through to the present day. “XI” was a great return, “Damned If You Do” is a return to glory.

(9/10 Andy Barker)