Classic Rock Bottom

Metal Church
Classic Live
Rat Pak Records - 2017

After the return of singer Mike Howe to the fold and the release of the triumphant XI album, I suppose that it makes sense that the band would further celebrate their renewed life with the release of a live album chronicling their 2016 tour.

While I have become mostly disinterested in live releases in the last few years, the moment this release was announced for pre-order, I placed my order. The only time I saw Metal Church was back in 1989 during Howe's first stint with the band, but I don't really remember much about the set. So this album is a nice way to have some live Metal Church on hand.

The first thing that should be said is that the track listing does live up to the album's title. There are nine live cuts on the disc (3 from the David Wayne era and 6 from Howe's first stay with the band) and they are all what would be considered the band's best known tracks. And while everyone has their personal favorites, listeners would be extremely hard pressed to come up with much in the way of equivocation about the songs that did make on to Classic Live.

The album opens with a superb rendition of "Beyond The Black". The instrumentation sounds great, and Howe sounds in fine voice, especially when he hits and holds one long note at the end of the song.

It should be noted that throughout each of the tracks, the musical performances all sound uniformly great. Kurdt Vanderhoof and Rick Van Zandt shred the six strings while Steve Unger and Jeff Plate (who recently left the band) hold down the bottom end with a focused but thunderous attack. But what I did notice is that there are times in the recording when the power of Mike Howe's vocals are muffled by what sounds like either a blown mike or some strange production mix choice (the CD was produced by Vanderhoof) that just didn't come off sounding right. I know that in order to be a "real" live album, there has to be an edgy rawness to the sound, but this was something else but I just can't put my finger on it exactly. It doesn't necessarily affect my overall enjoyment of each song per se (though I was a little down on this particular rendition of "Watch The Children Pray"), but it is something to note.

The biggest problem I had  with this release is the obvious edits between each song. While the album isn't billed as one single live concert performance, each time the album cuts from one song to the next, the listener is, for a moment at least, taken out of the live experience the album should be fostering. Hell, the first time I listened, I thought my copy was damaged and skipping.

That said, songs that were so immense in the studio retain that sense of mightiness in the live setting. The ant-racism song "No Friend of Mine" grips you with the power and conviction with which it is performed. "Date With Poverty" manages to keep its both serious and somewhat smart aleck sensibilities intact. And the viciously intense "In Mourning" leaves your ears charred.

As for "Badlands", arguably the band's most visible song (and video) from back in the day, it sounds good but a little different done live. When Howe returned to Metal Church, the band recorded a new version of this song and pretty much everyone (myself included) marveled at how Howe's voice sounds so close to what would be considered his "prime". On this live cut, he's still powerful but I think there's a subtle difference in tone here. And whether you consider it surprising or sad, the scathing contempt with which the band attacks the fakeness in the music industry on "Human Factor", remains perfectly timely.

The album closes with a new studio recording of the band's song "Fake Healer". On the song, Howe is joined by current Queensryche singer Todd La Torre in a balls to the wall metal duet. While the new version isn't really necessary, the thing that stands out most about the song is how Todd La Torre, for once sounds like his own man instead of a Geoff Tate tribute singer.

While the CD jacket added to the song title a tiny bit, "Gods of Second Chance" sums up this latest incarnation of the band: "A candle flame before me, flickers in dance / As I sit here praying, hoping the I'm swaying / The gods of second chance".

Second chances aren't always assured, but Metal Church shows that they are making the most of theirs with Howe out in front again. While not perfect, Classic Live is a declarative statement of intent from the band and I know that I can't wait to see what's coming next.

3.7 stars out 5 stars

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Glad you enjoyed the album TR.  It's not really something I'm interested in, but I was thinking about live albums earlier today.  I'm thinking about writing a post on the subject.

I'll be interested to read the piece.


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