Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Metal Church - Damned If You Do (2018)

XI might have benefited a bit from the 'look who's back' factor, but with Damned If You Do, Metal Church pull up their sleeves and put in the hard work with a record that sounds angrier, more confrontational, and decidedly more USPM than its forebears. In fact, this is one of the band's heaviest efforts to its day, due not only to the riffs and structures, but also Mike Howe had really settled back into his vocal role, and he dishes out one of his most vicious performances. It's this charisma and confidence that seeps through even the simpler of passages on the record, like the verses of "The Black Things" with their clean-tinted guitars, and makes even this track a beast. But he's not alone in this, because the guitars continue to spit out riffs that feel fresh for the band's catalogue, and this is clearly riding the wave of newfound creativity that the band had plunged itself into just a few years before.

That's not to say it's totally out of the ordinary for a veteran band that inhabits the hinges between heavy, power and thrash metal, but if you only had the first few Metal Church albums to go buy, you might not even think this was the same band outside of Howe's resemblance to David Wayne's style. These songs sound like the ravings of much younger men, brisk and savage yet still capable of integrating some more thoughtful uplifting melodies ("Revolution Underway"). The guitars and drums are really busy, and like a lot of their albums they've got a corpulent but cruise-controlled bass presence to support them. Leads aren't overly developed, they just sort of burn out bluesy progressions where appropriate, and in general I felt like this album wasn't as glossed up as XI was in the mix, so there's more of an appreciable level of power at their control. Just a little ugliness to complement the hostility and augment its authenticity. The record sounds great whether it's trotting along at a rapid pace ("Guillotine", "Out of Balance", "Into the Fold"), which it does ably and often, or if they chug along with a moderate headbanging ("Rot Away").

Damned if You Do is bittersweet, of course, because it would be Mike Howe's last record before taking his own life in 2021, which for an underground metal nerd like myself, who had been worshiping his work on Heretic's Breaking Point since that album came out over 30 years prior, was pretty devastating. For my money, though, he left us with one of his most intense records, easily the best I'd heart him sing on in all that time, and arguably his best technical performance, with a lot more catchy harmony hooks and screams than I might have expected from XI before it. This is one pissed off and effective record, and for my money the best Metal Church material outside of the first two discs. It might not achieve masterwork level, and let's face it, the band probably won't ever grace us with an Operation: Mindcrime, Hall of the Mountain King or Master of Puppets, but you can't ever question their persistence and loyalty to the genre that broke them...persistence that would outlive even the aforementioned tragedy.

Verdict: Win [8/10]


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