Friday 12 January 2024

Metal Church - Congregation of Annihilation (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
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Metal Church's previous studio album proper, Damned If You Do, was the first album I reviewed at Apocalypse Later, on New Year's Day six years ago, and it was a great way to start, as a high point in their already stellar career. Since then, all we've seen from them is a strange compilation, From the Vault, which was decent but, given how it was built, an inevitably patchwork affair. That's not because they've been sitting on their hands, though. There's a very good reason for a long period of inactivity and that's the untimely death of vocalist Mike Howe, in 2021. RIP, sir.

Howe was a powerful singer who fit the Metal Church style perfectly, even though he was always up against it because of whose boots he was filling. Original vocalist David Wayne was one of the most recognisable vocalists in metal at the time and nobody's ever quite managed to match him. Howe was able to sing in the same style without being forced into copying him and he brought an impressive new era to the band. Both of them are seriously missed. And, of course, that just puts any new singer into an even harder situation. Not only does he have to follow Wayne but he also has to follow Howe.

That new singer is Marc Lopes, who's also the current singer for Ross the Boss and Let Us Prey. on top of a four year stint with Meliah Rage. I'd found him a little much on the most recent album for Ross the Boss, Born of Fire, and Let Us Prey is a metalcore band, but he seems to be very much at home in Metal Church. He reminds of Howe a little more than Wayne, but he's obviously paid lots of attention to both while not trying to mimic either. He's clearly confident here, delivering some sustained power screams on the title track and Pick a God and Prey that underline why they hired him to begin with.

Coincidentally, those two are highlights, after a decent opener, Another Judgement Day, that never quite manages to grab me. Congregation of Annihilation has the first earworm chorus and the latter opens just like the band always should, with that patented combination of chug and power that they made their own long ago. It always boggles my mind how effortlessly they deliver power. When thrash bands slow down to do this, they sound like they're wussing out and I can't wait for them to speed back up. On a Metal Church song, it's the most powerful thing ever. The same applies to the mellow section on Children of the Lie. When other bands do this, they lose their power. When this band does it, they remain just as powerful as they always are.

Lopes is in playful mode on Children of the Lie, moving from one speaker to the other and back as he spits out lyrics. Some of my favourite tracks this time feature that playful mindset, especially a bonus track, My Favorite Sin, because the playfulness there isn't just Lopes, in probably his finest performance on this album, but also the guitars of Rick van Zandt and Kurdt Vanderhoof. This one gets seriously jaunty for a power metal song. Why this is a bonus track, I'm not sure, because the album runs just under fifty minutes with this and the excellent Salvation, which close things out a lot more effectively than All That We Destroy, which would technically be the closer otherwise.

I'm wary of calling out any other personal highlights, because this is a grower of an album, so the tracks I'd call out now may end up not being the ones that stay with me most. It's probably safe to place Pick a God and Prey above everything else, but what follows is likely to change, because this wasn't an immediate album for me, growing substantially on repeat listens. Many of the growers come midway and late in the album, as the more immediate material comes quickly, after the odd opener that still hasn't impressed itself on me.

Me the Nothing and Making Monsters at the heart of the album are two strong growers, as is All That We Destroy. They didn't leap out on my first time through, but started to make their case on a second and felt strong by a third. In between is a something rather different, Say a Prayer with 7 Bullets, which is a bouncy creature indeed, sounding rather like Metal Church covering an AC/DC track that we've never heard before. I'm not sure why that works so well, but it does.

And so, after four times through, I think I need to move on to my other review for the day. This is a new Metal Church, with a new lead singer, but it's still fundamentally the old Metal Church with a recognisably old Metal Church sound. Lopes fits in well and I see no reason why the fans shouldn't adopt him immediately. As always, the power this band effortlessly generates is what makes them special and it's here just as much as it always has been. This may not be Damned If You Do, let alone The Dark, but it's not a bad follow-up at all and it's a very good one indeed if we factor in what's happened between them.

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