As we know, losing people is a fact of life. We hold musicians in high regard because what they bring to our lives; an album that stays with us forever, deliverers of songs that can change or enhance our lives or the ritual of a gig experience. Musicians become something special and as well as how we feel personally, they connect other people. We do not know them as such but we feel that we do through their music. Legends – there are many of them and so many lost, but we have a great many legends still around. Mike Howe was my legend and yesterday, it was announced that the much-loved Metal Church front man had passed away at the age of 55.
Mike did not always front the band he became synonymous with, though. I was 13 when the self titled debut was released and I had never heard anything like it – back then the vocalist was David Wayne. Just holding the album in my hands (still in its cellophane wrapping to this day), an expensive import was like holding gold; the now iconic cover and the black and white photo on the back. Two years later The Dark was released in 1986, equally powerful but different, part thrash, part power metal. It was an exciting new era.
It was a shock when David Wayne left Metal Church and as it happens, as much as I knew Mike Howe from his previous band Heretic and their 1988 album Breaking Point I was not sure whether he was a good fit for Metal Church. That was answered when his first album with the band Blessing For Disguise was released in 1989. I will be honest, it took me a good while to love that album, a point of view which was seen as heresy at the time. On reflection, there is a lot more to the record, it wasn’t a straight up thrasher, more progressive and a band with a new beginning. I loved Mike’s voice and realised that he was in actual fact a perfect fit. It was 1991s The Human Factor where everything came together for me personally. It is not a record that is often talked about, favour tends to be laid with the albums either side of it, but it still remains my favourite ‘go-to’ Metal Church album to this day. There are a lot of angry songs on the record, there are politics, songs about musicians being ripped off and a track as to censorship and music. Even the powerful semi ballad that raised the roof – something that became a bit of a style for Metal Church at the album mid-point, Gods Of Wrath from Metal Church, Watch The Children Pray from The Dark, Anthem Of The Estranged from Blessing In Disguise and now In Harm’s Way on The Human Factor – a song about domestic abuse and children. It was the single Date With Poverty that really resonated with me as it practically described my day job and looks at it from the other side of the fence.
Mike did one final album, Hanging In The Balance in 1995 which is still seen as a classic and is a great album, even beyond the terrible artwork. It was to be Mike Howe’s swansong though, he left the band and retired from music. I was gutted. I was not sure whether I could handle yet another singer singing those songs, Mike was the man and embodied what Metal Church were all about. I continued to follow the band who replaced Mike with their first singer David Wayne who then left again and in turn was replaced by Ronny Munroe. Mike was my real favourite though, he could sing the Wayne era…hearing Mike sing Watch The Children Pray live has the hairs standing on my neck even just thinking about it and you did not have to go far to read “bring back Mike” comments on the Internet. It always seemed unlikely, though, especially after more than two decades.
Then it became a reality. Ronny left the band and in 2015 it was announced that Mike would be returning. It seemed unreal, I hadn’t known such excitement about a returning musician before. It was nerve wracking to hear what Metal Church with Mike Howe would sound like in the 21st century, there were teasers with re-recordings of Badlands (from Blessing In Disguise) and when that new album – XI – was finally released in 2016, it was a revelation. I went nuts on a spending spree, as well as two UK copies (one still sealed), I picked up a signed US copy – that included Mike Howe sticker in the shape of the Metal Church logo – and a Japanese copy because all versions had tracks that were not on the other editions. It seems nerdy but I wanted every song I could get a hold of from the XI sessions because it was Mike’s return. A UK tour was announced, and we made the three hour drive to Camden (which actually took 5hrs) for the show at the Underworld, a chance too good to miss. The show was magnificent; the pokey venue was rammed and hearing people mutter stories about seeing Metal Church back in the day. Strangest sight was the guy that had clearly come to the gig from work and stage dived – still dressed in his suit. During that tour, I was lucky enough to interview Mike. They were due to play The Thekla Venue in Bristol that night and you could hear people enjoying themselves in the background, it was rowdy, but Mike was happy to talk about his return and what it meant for him: they were having a blast. In 2018 Metal Church were due to release a new album Damned If You Do (more US and Japanese copies) and I got a second chance to interview Mike whose laughter was infectious. It was 7.30am in the morning where he was but he was happy to talk and share his time. Metal Church came back to the UK and it was another trip to Camden and the following year a main stage appearance at the UK’s Bloodstock Festival. It seemed that Metal Church were on the road constantly, a new fire in their bellies and making the most of their time together. As much as Mike said that being interviewed was part of the job, he saw the same as to communication with the fans as a vital element of what he did. He was always happy to meet the fans and since his passing, social media has been flooded with such photographs taken after gigs.
We do not often get that to our heroes and legends beyond albums and gigs, and I was lucky to be able to do that. It can be tough to switch off the “fan boy” when conducting an interview but Mike was so easy going and made a real point as to the connection with fans which took that pressure off. Social media has made it different in the way that bands connect with fans and in some respects made it easier but to others it has removed the mystique. Mike was doing it for real.
Mike Howe will be missed forever. Not just an amazing vocalist but an amazing person. The outpouring of shock and grief at the news of his passing has proved itself, to know how much Mike Howe was loved and what he brought to fellow fans, other bands and musicians. There will be no-one like him again
To me, Mike Howe was a legend. We will always have his music and enough memories to last our own lifetimes.
RIP Mike Howe. Velvet Thunder sends its condolences to Mike’s family, friends, band mates and fans. Below is reprinted the interview that I did with Mike in 2018 and was originally printed in the final issue of Rock Society Magazine in 2019.
The Human Factor
In 2015, following a break of 22 years, lead vocalist Mike Howe returned to the fold much to the joy of a fervent fan base. Mike talks to Rock Society about fronting Metal Church once more and their wicked new album Damned If You Do
There was some irony with the rise of grunge, its birth place and spiritual home of Washington and Seattle. While other US cities such as Los Angeles, the bay area of San Francisco and New York had become synonymous with hard rock and metal in the 1980s, Seattle also had a feverish and important music scene already. With the arrival of flannel shirts and a new movement, from a musical standpoint, the state was cannibalising itself. The three main names among many, Queensryche, Fifth Angel – who recently returned in 2018 after a 30 year hiatus – Sanctuary and Metal Church were faced with a new paradigm – adapt or die. While Queensryche probably had the higher ground, Metal Church had done well for themselves. Formed in 1980 by only consistent member, guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof in California but relocating to Aberdeen, Washington – the birthplace of Kurt Cobain – the quintet were something of an anomaly in that they were aligned with thrash, the blending of New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and American hard rock and with their ‘scratchy’ vocalist David Wayne, Metal Church wielded something of an influence over the burgeoning scene. Their self-titled debut album released in 1984 even today remains something of a classic and beyond reproach. It was not until the follow up 1986’s The Dark, touring supporting Metallica and heavy rotation of the video for the still incredible sombre power ballad Watch The Children Pray that Metal Church found some much deserved success. The line up did not last, though and while Vanderhoof remained a member composing material, he ceased to tour and shortly after, David Wayne also exited.
Not wanting to lose any momentum, the search was on for a new singer and with Vanderhoof setting his sights on other activities such as production he found his man in young vocalist Mike Howe. “Going up to Seattle and trying out for Metal Church was a life changing event for me, it will always be stamped on my brain,” reflects Mike today. “It was very exciting at the time, meeting Kurdt, a mutual friend introduced us, and he came and produced Heretic’s album [1988’s Breaking Point]. Kurdt and I hit it off in the studio and when he asked me if I was interested in trying out for Metal Church, I said ‘of course’. There was this 4-track cassette recorder which was state of the art back then and Kurdt had written a song called Anthem To The Estranged which he really wanted me to track vocals on. I jammed with the band and two weeks later they offered me the job. We immediately went into the studio in Philadelphia, recorded thirty days straight for Blessing In Disguise and toured like mad dogs for a year. It was exciting but it was like from the frying pan into the fire.”
Released in 1989, Howe’s debut with the band Blessing In Disguise received some hit and miss critical reviews but this did not stop the album peaking at no 75 of the Billboard 200. While the modern view of the record sees the album as a highlight, fans always praised the album from its release and saw it as the pinnacle of the band’s career. Despite the success of Blessing and some heavy touring in support of the album, the band were dropped by their label Elektra but were picked up by Epic records for their fourth outing, 1991’s The Human Factor. Despite critical acclaim and being praised for their ability to step outside of the genre, the album failed to chart. The wheels really came off with their fifth album Hanging In The Balance released in 1993. While musically the record was a more than solid effort, Metal Church disbanded citing management problems and Mike Howe retired from music altogether. “I wasn’t in a good place,” explains Mike. “I left for very serious reasons, I love that music and it was being ruined for me by the business and so I was glad to be away from it. I had this great history being in Metal Church and I was very proud and satisfied with what we had done. I could have died a happy man.”
While putting together a live release in 1998, the decision was taken to reform Metal Church and this included original vocalist David Wayne. Signing to Nuclear Blast, Metal Church released Masterpiece in 1999 which received widespread critical acclaim but a tepid reaction from fans. However, David Wayne once again departed, forming his own band simply called Wayne and releasing an album entitled Metal Church in 2001. Vanderhoof objected to the title and the cover art which remained contentious until Wayne’s tragic death in 2005 at the age of 47 following complications from a car accident which had occurred some months before.
In 2004, Metal Church recruited Ronny Munroe to front the band, releasing Weight Of The World in the same year. With Vanderhoof back to performing, Light In The Dark featuring a re-recorded version of Watch The Children Pray in tribute to Wayne followed in 2006 and This Present Wasteland in 2008 before unexpectedly disbanding again in 2009.
In 2012, Metal Church was resurrected once more and following a performance of their debut in its entirety announced that they were working on a new album, again featuring Munroe on vocals but this was short lived, and he left the band two years later. Metal Church decided to continue and after years of asking by fans, it was announced in 2015 that Mike Howe had come out of retirement to re-join his former colleagues.
Asked if Mike missed the time he was away there is a long pause followed by the short shrift answer of “A little bit” but then quickly follows up with the here and now. “This is the icing on the cake though, who gets a second chance of doing it again? This puts it into focus and this is why it we are more for each day, we can really appreciate where we’re at and for what we’re being handed.” Mike pauses again and then laughs. “These are the metal gods, right?”
Signed to Rat Pak Records in the US – Nuclear Blast in Europe – Howe’s return to Metal Church gained huge attention and the resulting album XI released in 2016 even beat the heights of his original debut back in 1989. The industry has changed in the 22 years that Howe has been away and considering under the circumstances of his leaving it would be a fair assumption that Mike was wary of returning. “I think that there are a lot of bands trying to make a comeback which is a great thing,” Mike says. “There is a lot of great music out there and the recording and label side of it has changed in positive ways for us because we’re in complete control, Kurdt has a studio in his house and we do it all ourselves. Record sales are very tough nowadays which is a difficulty because of streaming and piracy, since the advent of the internet a lot of people don’t feel that it’s important to purchase music and support their bands. That is a big hit on the industry and it forces people to be on the road constantly.” It does seem that Metal Church has continuously been on the road which included two visits to the UK in support of XI. In the day of VIP packages, it was humbling to hear Metal Church’s love for the audience and inviting people to go and meet them at the merch desk, signing anything and everything and posing for selfies. “That’s not something that is a sacrifice to me,” Mike explains. “We’re on the road, that’s our job and the most important thing for me is the live performance and the interaction with the crowd and that shared experience of music. To me it’s a beautiful and magical moment in time and then to be able to go after the show and meet, shake hands and talk to all of those people, that’s a spiritual connection for me. I want that, it really fills me up to connect to people like that.”
There is no sign of the Metal Church juggernaut slowing down either – along with Vanderhoof and Howe – the line up is completed by Steve Unger on bass, Rick Van Zandt on guitar and drummer Stet Howland, they released another new album Damned If You Do in 2018. Never a band to give much away as to lyrics, Mike Howe chuckles at the mention of the album title. “I’m going to say something about the album and why I love the title so much. I love the title song because it raises questions. Damned if you do what? All of the humming and the monster riffs but the song itself raises that question, it’s totally awesome and open ended, people will interpret it in many ways.” And what about the song Monkey Finger? How do we interpret that? Mike Howe cracks out with laughter at the mention of the song. “That song was one of those fun rock and metal songs,” Mike explains. “Kurdt wrote the riffs and I started singing melodies and the Monkey Finger statement came out as words flying out because that’s what we do. Sometimes it’s cool, sometimes it’s gibberish.”
With a US tour lined up for April 2019, Metal Church will be on the road for some time and this includes a visit to the UK to play the Bloodstock Festival. Are you looking forward to it? “Very much so,” Mike says before he hoots with more laughter “we’re happy to be asked because we sit back and wait for invites!”
Mike Howe and Metal Church, class acts all the way. See you down the front when church is in session once more – you will be damned if you don’t.