By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
METAL CHURCH – HANGING IN THE BALANCE (1993)
While I don’t mean any actual disrespect to fans of other bands, let me just say that you can have your Megadeth and you can have your Slayer. But for me, I will always say give me my Metal Church, for the band out of Washington State are one of the most criminally underrated bands in the history of metal. Since their self-titled debut release in the mid-1980s, their music has been one of the most consistently great album catalogs the metal world has ever seen. Through numerous lineup changes and three eras of the band defined by who was singing for them at the time, Metal Church has been worthy of being worshipped as one of the best for over 30 years now.
Let me get one thing out of the way because whenever I talk about the Hanging In The Balance album, it needs to be said that the cover art is just awful. I mean BAD. As in, what the hell were people thinking?
Okay, with that out of the way let’s move on to what I like. In a word, EVERYTHING! Look, after the departure of singer David Wayne, you wouldn’t be alone in wondering if the band would be able to find someone to take over singing and be just as good. Well, the truth is Mike Howe was better. I’ve been a fan of his since the first time I saw the video for the song “Badlands” off of the Blessing In Disguise album. He had it all, the look, the gravitas and most importantly, the incredible vocal dexterity to actually raise Metal Church’s game to a new level.
I saw the band as an opening act for W.A.S.P. and Accept back in 1989 at the Citi Club in Boston and got to meet four-fifths of the lineup including Howe. And he was fantastic on that night so it wasn’t just a studio thing. He had the pipes to go over well live as well.
So when Hanging In The Balance was released in 1993, it’s not like it was a surprise to me that I’d like the album. But what I wasn’t prepared for is just how potent this album would be.
The first side of the album features six songs and they run the full emotional gamut. The opener “Gods of Second Chance” is a pretty effective opening statement for the album with Howe’s vocal growl informing the music (seriously, John Marshall and Craig Wells were really on their game throughout the album) and when the chorus explodes in your ears, you know you are in for a great ride.
“Losers In The Game” has a faster tempo that keeps your head banging along and it was here that I realized that for the first two songs, I’d actually been singing along. Okay, really I was just mouthing the lyrics but still. I’ve listened to this album a lot over the 27 years since it was released but the lyrics still make me eager to “sing along”.
I will say that when I was first becoming familiar with the album when it was released, there was something that bothered me about the song “Hypnotized”. If I’d written a review of the album back then, it would’ve been the one song I said I didn’t like. I have never been quite able to figure out what it was that I just didn’t like about the song but over the ensuing passage of time, the song has definitely grown on me.
While it may be a bit more subtle at times, I also enjoy when Metal Church uses their songs to address something that is important to them (and generally important to the world at large if you think about it). On Hanging In The Balance, this part of their songwriting capabilities is demonstrated with the song “No Friend Of Mine”. It is a song that confronts racism and the band nailed it! The message doesn’t overwhelm the song, which is always the best way to do things. The music is intense and Mike Howe’s furious vocal performance leaves its mark. When I saw the band in 2019 (at a show that was simply magnificent), the band performed the song and it still retains the power it had when you first hear the song.
Everyone knows that the band that best captures the ability to make a song epic, whether in the depth of the songwriting or simply the length of a song is Iron Maiden. They manage to combine both songwriting and length in a way that keeps each one of their epic tracks interesting. These songs always seem to be mini-stories that have a beginning, middle and end.
To that end, I’d wager that Metal Church has this kind of thing going for them as well. On “Waiting For A Savior”, the band starts out slow. The music is sparse, just the right touch of subtlety to fuel Mike Howe’s softer vocal presentation. They build the song’s thematic sensibilities and then all of a sudden Metal Church hits you with a sonic explosion of sound and thunder to take the song to another level. It’s like you are sitting there calmly and all of a sudden getting hit in the head with a bat.
The album side closes out with one of my favorite Metal Church songs of all-time, “Conductor”. It is a non-stop engine of metallic wonder. The musical soundtrack is outstanding but it is the rapid fire machine gun style in which the vocals are delivered that just kill me. More importantly, they kill my jaw. I’m not kidding, if you’ve heard the song and try to sing along by the time the second verse finishes, my jaw is aching. One of the many reasons I’m sure why I was never going to be a singer. I honestly don’t know how Mike Howe does this song. It is easier in the studio because you can edit the stuff together. But I’m sure but the guy’s jaw must be like a Looney Tunes cartoon character to pull it off live. Or he’s just a consummate professional vocalist, which is the more likely true explanation.
As for the second side of the album, the song “Little Boy” struck me as being structured like an old TV miniseries. The opening act, the rising tension, the crescendo and the finale. The eight-minute song has all of that in a musical maelstrom of time and tempo.
The song “Down To The River” is a faster and more direct straight ahead rocking song and the instrumental “Lovers and Madmen” is low-key but still a very cool way to lead into the album closing “A Subtle War”. This song finds Metal Church bringing the hammer to the nail as it seems to address life living in the midst of gangs or gang warfare. Again, the message doesn’t overwhelm the medium so the two halves work to make a great or greater whole.
For me, the centerpiece of the album’s second side is the song “End of the Age”. The song is at times rather hypnotic. There are definitive allusions to religion in the lyrics. This is not my general area of interest in the least, but the band makes it work. It bears repeating that they really do seem to have a masters-level appreciation for crafting a song that has all the earmarks of being an epic story. And just when you think you know where the song is taking you, there comes a killer speed driven mid-section fueled by screaming guitar work, dynamic rhythms from bassist Duke Erickson and drummer Kirk Arrington and a ripping vocal take from Mike Howe.
I’m shamelessly open about my admiration for Metal Church. I’ve given fantastic reviews to their two most recent studio albums on another site that I write for and I have always pre-ordered any new release over the last decade or so. They are simply one of my favorite bands and it is a joy to say so to anyone who will listen. So raise the altar, pour yourself a cup of sacramental wine and check out Hanging In The Balance. It is an album that will leave you, much like Wayne and Garth, proclaiming that you simply are just not worthy. In other words, you will discover that Metal Church is one of the best metal bands in history…PERIOD.
NOTES OF INTEREST – Mike Howe left the band, and the music business, for over 20 years after this album. He returned to fronting Metal Church in 2015 and they have released two brilliant studio albums as well as a live disc in that time frame. The band’s fourth release since Howe’s return is called From The Vault which was released on April 10th, 2020. That album is a 14 track (there are four bonus tracks available through purchasing various versions of the release) compilation of new recordings (including a 2020 re-recording of this album’s “Conductor”, five B-sides from the Damned If You Do sessions, cover songs and live tracks.
Hanging In The Balance was released through Blackheart Records, the label founded by Joan Jett and Kenny Laguna. Jett is credited with background vocals on the song “Little Boy” and Laguna is listed as one of the album’s three producers.
Paul O’Neill, best known for his work with Savatage and being the driving force behind Trans-Siberian Orchestra, is listed as “Musical Coordinator” for the album. He co-wrote and produced the song “Gods of Second Chance” and produced three other songs as well.
Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell plays the lead on “Gods of Second Chance”. Metal Church leader Kurdt Vanderhoof wasn’t part of the band’s official lineup for Hanging In The Balance but he is credited with providing “additional guitars” and co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs on the album. There’s a 12th track on the European version of the album called “Low to Overdrive” which he wrote as well.