October 1, 2020

You have to hand it to Metal Church. Since iconic vocalist Mike Howe came out of retirement and re-joined his former colleagues in 2014, the band has not been very far from the metal consciousness. XI – their first album with Howe since 1993’s Hanging In The Balance – was a major success when it was released in 2016 and followed two years later by Damned If You Do. Metal Church has played a smart game though; it is not enough that a talismanic vocalist returns, an album needs considerable road support and the quintet played the world’s stages and festivals including two visits to the UK in relatively quick succession as well as a main stage appearance at Bloodstock in 2019. And rather than leaving gaps in between new music, Metal Church want us to know that they are still out there which is where Classic Live – as well as this year’s terrific rarities, b-sides and re-recordings From The Vault – comes in.

Metal Church (l-r) Steve Unger, Kurdt Vanderhoof, Mike Howe, Rick Van Zandt & Stet Howland (Photo: Melissa Castro)

In the grand scheme of things and as prolific as it is, Metal Church’s recent release activity can be a little confusing. The eagle eyed may believe that this album is a re-release and with certain online retail behemoths having relatively cheap import copies making the album easily available but with different territories comes different labels. Originally, Classic Live was released by Rat Pak Records in the United States in 2017 and again as a bonus disc on the Japanese version of Damned If You Do in 2018 but until now Classic Live has never officially been released in Europe/UK.

Classic Live is something of a celebration for Howe’s return; the reunion shows were an absolute blast and a band enjoying every moment of being back together. It therefore makes perfect sense to capture this for a live release, marking what is to fans a momentous occasion and one of its major selling points is the focus on classic material with most tracks being culled from Howe’s time with the band, the remainder taken from David Wayne’s original 1980s tenure, the classic debut album Metal Church and its follow up The Dark.

Classic Live actually opens with a David Wayne era track, the still ominous and spine tingling belter that is Beyond The Black and while the riff, solos and Howland’s drums are a thunderous whiplash there is a slight issue with the recording that becomes apparent. Let us pull absolutely no punches here – Mike Howe’s voice is still one to be envious of; he remains a powerhouse and it is staggering that someone who has two decades away from singing still has that voice, even just watching the man’s technique is worthy of the chills that comes along with it. However, that voice is a little high in the mix and when Howe’s opening line comes in, it is so at the forefront that it is a distraction from everything else going on. This does not ruin the album – far from it – it is right that Howe’s voice is showcased but it is a little at the front in the mix and it does take some getting used to. There is a positive in that the end product feels real and not overdubbed to death, a raw reality that tends to be looked over with live albums, they should not be “suit and tie” perfection and being in front of that stage should be gritty, that is what headbangers want.

The track list cannot be faulted, Date With Poverty and its lyrical scrap with the debt collectors and to hear anything from Hanging In The Balance is just tremendous, Gods Of Second Chance is just so mind blowingly good; the Unger bass rumble and the Vanderhoof/Van Zandt guitar partnership really knocks it out of the park. To have the set mix it up and dart around the discography is one of the highlights of Classic Live and it does show why Howe was the perfect match for the band when David Wayne left Metal Church because the Wayne material never caused him any trouble and Watch The Children Pray is just such a solid example of this, a sinister power ballad that still sends shivers 34 years on and followed by that riff for Start The Fire, the old school stomp it is possible to feel the grins on the crowd.

Despite the recording of this show being post the release of XI, the focus is on older material which actually makes for a good plan, highlighting the past, Howe’s return and bringing it into the the present does make a difference and the chance to hear some songs live that would probably get hoofed out in favour of newer material. Classic Live is very a fan based celebration. The mix is a very small criticism of an album that does put Metal Church’s live arena in the living room and when you have a band with their history and longevity kicking ass like this then it is impossible to really be down in the mouth on minor details.