METAL CHURCH – Congregation Of Annihilation (Album Review)

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A new pastor leads the metal masses to salvation.

When it comes to longevity, few can boast the degree of tenacity and dedication that has been displayed by Metal Church and particularly its guitarist, mastermind and lone founding member Kurdt Vanderhoof. Originally staking his claim on the metal craze of the 80s in the San Francisco Bay Area prior to it becoming the hub of the west coast thrash movement, the early strides made would become a beacon from which the broader American metal scene would take much of its influences, and in the decades since they’ve exhibited an eclectic blend of traditional, thrash and power metal stylistic quirks that continually remind of the days when metal was far less fragmented. Through the dark era of grunge the Metal Church brand would soldier on in spite of near depleted popular interest, with Vanderhoof even hanging the band’s hat in the hometown of Kurt Cobain, and barring a few short hiatuses in subsequent years, continued to put out solid entries back to back. Now with the 2020s well under way, a highly potent shot across the proverbial bow has been unleashed in “Congregation Of Annihilation,” an apt name for the most intense and refined slab of metal splendor to come from this band in over 20 years.

The tragic passing of highly charismatic and long-running helmsman Mike Howe in 2021, after a sizable uptick in quality of studio output via 2016’s “XI” and particularly the last banger opus “Damned If You Do”, had all but promised to cut Metal Church off at the knee, but as the prior 40 years has testified, this church has an uncanny ability of finding competent ministers to man the pulpit. Tapping former Meliah Rage and current Ross The Boss vocalist Marc Lopes to deliver the latest medley of sermons may well have proven the most significant move the band has made since the end of the 90s, as his forceful snarl and extremely wide range breathes a level of life into this fold’s highly kinetic and melodically charged handiwork that at least matches the flair of Metal Church’s early 90s output, if not their iconic and highly celebrated magnum opuses from the 80s. Combined with the songwriting expertise and seemingly bottomless well of crushing riff work that Vanderhoof always brings to the table, the shred-happy leads of Rick Van Zandt and the same steady rhythm section of bassist Steve Unger and drummer Stet Howland that proved invaluable in shaping the sound of “Damned If You Do,” the result is an unrelenting 49 minute session of sonic punishment to rival the ferocity of any Bay Area act, tempered with a hook-driven approach to melody that is a bit more accessible to those outside of the thrash scene.

Reprising the winning combination of Vanderhoof’s production expertise with that of engineer Johnny Hyatt, Metal Church has dished out an LP that is defined almost entirely by sheer impact, sporting a truly massive and biting guitar tone and massive mix that strikes a good balance between the highly compressed practices that typify the modern thrash sound with the vintage pedigree that long time fans of this outfit have come to expect. The cruising power and flashy riff work of opening crusher “Another Judgment Day” packs enough of a punch to be easily mistaken for something off of Megadeth’s “Rust In Peace,” though the combination of a streamlined structure and Lopes’ glass-shattering wails makes for something that’s more along the lines of a compact banger entry rather than a progressive epic. This proves to be more than just an isolated case as similarly styled high octane entries like “Pick A God And Prey” and “All That We Destroy” have all of the raw fury and flashy moments to put the likes of Testament and Exodus on notice, while retaining more of an archaic, early 80s power/thrash demeanor that betrays a closer adherence to NWOBHM than what most thrash acts have done since 1985.

“Congregation Of Annihilation” Artwork

For the most part, this album sticks to delivering moderate length kill sessions that put the majority of emphasis on energy and drive, though there are a few moments of nuance and respite to be found amid the sea of turbulent twists and turns. Generally this manifests in a tamped down introduction and outro such as the ones that graces the pummeling thrasher “Making Monsters”, while the almost serene clean beginning of “Me The Nothing” is chased by something closer to a Dio or Accept-like down tempo metal entry with recurring atmospheric elements and the bombastic approach of the vocals gives way to something that is occasionally haunting. At other times the feel of things shifts in favor of something closer to an old school, rock-infused take on up tempo metallic fervor as on “Children Of The Lie”, which almost sounds like it could have graced one of Saxon’s early 80s LPs were it not for the exaggerated bite of Lopes’ vocals. The bonus tracks included are no less intricate in their approach to mixing old with new, with “My Favorite Sin” opting for a heavy shuffle that also blurs the lines between metal and hard rock, while closer “Salvation” bookends the album with another Megadeth-like entry that sees the lead guitar work take the direction of the song to its logical conclusion with a bluesy swagger that would make Chris Poland smile.

The naysayers that were all set to write this metal mainstay off as over and done due to the unfortunate loss of Mike Howe (R.I.P.) are likely to be the only ones that will be disappointed here, as “Congregation Of Annihilation” stands as the sort of comeback affair that has a way of reigniting former glory to the proportion of an atomic bomb. Opinions may vary as to whether this is the greatest donation to hit the offering plate since 1999’s “Masterpeace” or the more celebrated diamond in the rough in 1993’s “Hanging In The Balance,” but it’s pretty easily stipulated that this towers above what has come to light bearing the Metal Church insignia since the turn of the millennium. In the personal opinion of this writer, the metal masses would be better served in getting their fix with this album than with the mixed affair that was Metallica’s latest entry, and those who have stuck with this longstanding clergy of all things heavy will be sure to find their church bolstered as strong by its enduring musical doctrines as it was by the man who rocked the mic for most of their career.

Order “Congregation Of Annihilation” AT THIS LOCATION.

Released By: RatPak Records
Release Date: May 26th, 2023
Genre: Thrash / Heavy Metal

“Congregation Of Annihilation” track-listing:

1. Another Judgement Day
2. Congregation of Annihilation
3. Pick A God and Prey
4. Children of the Lie
5. Me The Nothing
6. Making Monsters
7. Say a Prayer with 7 Bullets
8. These Violent Thrills
9. All That We Destroy
10. My Favorite Sin (Bonus Track)
11. Salvation (Bonus Track)

Musicians:

  • Marc Lopes / Vocals
  • Kurdt Vanderhoof / Guitars
  • Rick Van Zandt / Guitars
  • Steve Unger  / Bass
  • Stet Howland / Drums
9.3 Excellent

The passage of time, shifting lineups and the tragic loss of an iconic helmsman have all failed to hinder the progress of America’s original denomination of metal excellence aptly dubbed Metal Church, bringing their old school blend of styles and songwriting intrigue into the 2020s with a vengeance on their 13th and latest studio excursion

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9.5
  • Originality 9
  • Production 9.5
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2 Comments

  1. Mike Vanderhoof on

    uh, this album is good musically but the engineering is horrible, this thing is brickwalled to hell.

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