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 – BLESSING IN DISGUISE (1989)
At the time this article is published it will be a little over two weeks since the sudden and shocking death of Metal Church singer Mike Howe. He passed away on July 26th, 2021, and when I woke up the next morning to learn of that news, I couldn’t help but feel personally devastated. After the cause of death was reported as a suicide, it felt like being hit by a double whammy. I’ve tried to come up with some sort of understanding about what could possibly have been going on with Mike Howe that would lead him to this decision. But I really haven’t found the right way to string words together for this article. Platitudes are terrible because it is just another word for “cliches”. And the five stages of grief might account for some of the ideas I had wanted to work into this introduction, but expressing “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance” seems a bit hackneyed from someone who didn’t really know the man outside of what I saw as a fan of his work with Metal Church.
While it may seem strange to be that affected by the death of someone I didn’t ACTUALLY know, the fact that I am such a huge fan of both the band as a whole and of Mike Howe’s work with them, left me spending the day after his death in somewhat of a haze. I broke out all the albums he made with Metal Church and played them in a musical tribute to his passing. But it didn’t feel like it was enough.
So I decided to do another Cassette Chronicles article on a Metal Church album as a way of paying a somewhat longer tribute to Mike Howe. I’d written about the Hanging In The Balance album back in April 2020. That was the third album the band recorded with Mike Howe as frontman and featured one of my all-time favorite tracks, “The Conductor”.
But for this article, I decided to take a look back at Blessing In Disguise, the first album from Metal Church to feature Mike Howe as their singer. But this won’t be just a look back at the album, I wanted to share a couple of stories so after each side of the album, that’s what I’m going to do.
Before talking about Side One of Blessing In Disguise, I should mention that when I looked the album up online, I was surprised to learn that it got mixed reviews upon release. The reason this blew me away is because I remember thinking it was a fantastic album through and through from the very first time I heard the album.
The funny thing about that is that I didn’t get the album when it was first released. Back in 1989, it wasn’t like we had the instantaneous news announcements like we do now. I didn’t even know the album was coming out until I saw the video for the song “Badlands” on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. But who was this new singer they had? With that mane of long blonde hair and a powerfully dynamic and ballsy vocal style, Mike Howe made an immediate impression with me. As for the “Badlands” song, I’ll talk more about that a little later.
I will say that seeing the video for the song prompted me to go out and buy the album as soon as I could. When I got the album (the cassette I listened to for this article is that very same one I bought three decades ago), I popped it in and the first thing I heard was the big booming drum fueled intro to the song “Fake Healer”. I was immediately hooked by the song, a venomously heavy track that takes the hypocrisy of the business of healthcare to task in such an on point way that it is still relevant to this day. The song is one of the two best known tracks (the other being “Badlands”) from the Blessing In Disguise album.
Since Metal Church is not glam metal by any stretch of the imagination, there aren’t a whole lot of songs about babes, booze, and partying. Instead, a lot of their songs touch on hot button topics like with “Fake Healer” or in the case of “Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912”), a hard-hitting account of the night the Titanic sank. Iron Maiden is likely the preeminent band to touch on a lot of historical subjects in their work but Metal Church sure does themselves proud with this track.
While guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof had left the active lineup of the band, he was very involved in the songwriting for Blessing In Disguise. Vanderhoof’s replacement in the lineup, John Marshall acquitted himself nicely with the four songs he co-wrote, as did guitarist Craig Wells. I was pretty blown away with the lyrics Marshall wrote for “Of Unsound Mind” which is based off of the Edgar Allen Poe story “A Tell-Tale Heart”. The song is a fast paced blitzkrieg with a killer vibe and you feel like you are right there, hearing that heartbeat you shouldn’t be able to as the band rockets through the track.
The closing song on Side One is called “Anthem To The Estranged” and at the time of the album’s original release, it was the longest track the band had ever recorded. Well over nine minutes in length, the song kicks off with a spare acoustic guitar accompanying Mike Howe’s vocals. It’s a very slow moving track for the first two minutes or so but then the song’s sonic palette expands and gets a heavier intensity to it as it builds its thematic elements to a cinematic level. The tempo switches back and forth between the softer and heavier side of the musical equation and by the time it finishes, you have one classically epic song on your hands.
And that’s Side One for you. Now, I wanted to take a moment and talk about the first time I got to see Metal Church in concert. It was in 1989 in Boston and they were the opening act on W.A.S.P.’s tour for their Headless Children album. With Accept as the middle act, this was a triple bill I was very excited to see. While the show had been originally scheduled for The Orpheum Theater, it got moved to The Citi Club which shared Landsdowne Street with Fenway Park. I enjoyed the hell out of the show as all three bands were excellent to the best of my recollection. But what really made it great was before the show when I (along with my friends that I went to the show with) got to meet Metal Church. Well, four of the five guys anyway. Since this was only the second time I’d met some of my metal “heroes”, I didn’t actually have an album on me at the show. But I had some kind of paper in my wallet and along with bassist Duke Erickson, drummer Kirk Arrington and Craig Wells, I got to meet Mike Howe! The guy who filled that desolate and barren desert with his distinctive vocal tones in the video for “Badlands” was right there in front of me signing autographs and chatting with fans before the show. And what was my first impression? “Damn, he seems so tiny!” Seriously, that’s what I thought, embarrassingly enough.
But when I got to meet him, he was pretty cool. I mean, it was a brief interaction in the wild and woolly 1980’s Metal Years but he took the time to make even the briefest connection while signing my goofy piece of paper, which you can see I still have by the photo below.
As for the second side of Blessing In Disguise, it opens with “Badlands” and I swear no matter how many times I hear the song, I still get an electrostatic charge when that intro begins to play. It’s a flat out great song!
The rest of the second side is pretty amped up as well. The instrumental “It’s A Secret” is an adrenaline packed and hard-hitting number that takes your breath away with its unbridled ferocity. While I don’t consider myself a huge fan of instrumental music, I always find myself blown away when a band does an instrumental piece that makes me want to hear it over and over again.
On “The Spell Can’t Be Broken” the band lays down a brutal heaviness and infuses it with a amplied sense of speed at the same time. It’s a perfect blending of the two styles and makes the song an underrated gem.
The song “Cannot Tell A Lie” is an explosive sonic attack against the empty promises politicians make time and time again. Mike Howe delivers a blisteringly intense vocal performance with a furious growl in his vocals. The pacing is so fast that when the song ends you feel like you’ve been richocheting around the room the whole time.
The album closing “The Powers That Be” moves just as fast but there’s a slight bit of restraint in comparison to the speed driven attack of “Cannot Tell A Lie”, it allows for just a bit more of a sense of melody into the mix of the song that enlivens the track a bit differently than the preceding number and finishes the album on a high note.
Now we all know what happened after Blessing In Disguise, right? Metal Church released two more excellent albums with Mike Howe but the band split up in 1996 and Mike Howe completely left the music industry.
There’d be a couple of reunions and some great albums (I, for one, love the Ronny Munroe years) but in 2015 came the surprising announcement that after nearly two decades out of the business, Mike Howe was coming back to Metal Church! Don’t get me wrong, like I said, I was a big fan of Ronny Munroe, but the news that Mike Howe was rejoining Metal Church was incredibly exciting! But how would he sound? Well, any fears about not sounding good were laid to rest pretty quickly because not only did he sound fantastic, but it felt like he’d never left. The band released the albums XI, Classic Live and then came Damned If You Do in 2018. How much did I like all this material? Well, I got to review all three of those albums (as well as the From The Vault release that came out in 2020) for KNAC.COM and I loved them all.
But it was the tour for Damned If You Do that once again brought me into contact with Mike Howe (as well as the rest of the band). They played a show in New Bedford, MA as part of a co-headlining tour with Doro Pesch. After their set, they did a meet and greet signing at the merchandise table and I got to have another brief interaction with Howe. And it was fantastic! The long hair had been long since replaced by a shorter haircut and while he hadn’t grown to be 6 foot 5 or anything, he looked so fit that he could probably kick your ass without getting winded! While still brief, during those few moments I had to talk with him as he signed my CD, I shared the story about meeting him in 1989 and having reviewed the new album. And while he could’ve been aloof, he looked straight at me with no glazing over of his eyes and paid attention. It’s a small thing really, but it’s that kind of effort that forges a bond between the band and their fans. While I never got to take a photo with him, it’s the memories of those two meetings that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
The Blessing In Disguise album was my introduction to the vocal talents of Mike Howe. It’s a great album that ranks high amongst the band’s full discography for me. I really don’t have anything negative to say about it because it is a showcase for Metal Church at their best.
But as I listened to the album, and all the other albums that Mike Howe was a part of, I couldn’t help feel saddened that there wouldn’t be anything more from him. I don’t know what the future will hold for Metal Church as a band. I hope they continue because I’d hate to lose them. But to borrow a song title from that Hanging In The Balance album, the crushing loss of Mike Howe does feel like it is the “End Of The Age” for some reason.
On the song “Badlands”, which was the only co-writing credit Mike Howe had on Blessing In Disguise, was the following lyric:
“As the world awakens me so hard, my values have been changed
I make a promise to myself: Never again
A dusty godforsaken path, endless to my dismay
I know these are the badlands, somehow I’ll find my way.”
Since I first heard them, those four lines have served as a kind of personal motto for me. Now I don’t know if it was Mike Howe who wrote those specific four lines but he sang them and I’ve always kind of loved the fact that I could think it was him who helped give me that motto.
Mike Howe was just 55 years old when he passed away. It was far too soon for someone who had provided so much to the world of metal, but I think still had so much more to offer.
My condolences go out to Howe’s family and friends and to everyone in the metal community who, like me, feel we lost someone pretty damn special to our musical fandom.
Rest In Peace Mike Howe, you will be forever missed but your spirit will never die.
NOTES OF INTEREST: I own the Blessing In Disguise album on both cassette and CD. It was produced by Terry Date. This was the 2nd and thus far final time the band worked with him.
Mike Howe came to Metal Church from the band Heretic. Howe sang on the album the band’s album Breaking Point in 1988. The album’s producer was none other than Metal Church’s Kurdt Vanderhoof. I actually have that album on vinyl, though I got it AFTER he’d become Metal Church’s singer.