Sunday Old School: Metal Church
Band Photo: Metal Church (?)
The month of May marks a couple of pivotal moments in the history of one of America's most classic power/thrash bands, Metal Church. It was in May of 1984 that the band played its first gig at the D&R Theatre in Kurdt Vanderhoof's native Aberdeen, Washington. It was also in May, nearly seven years to the day, that the metal world lost one of its most iconic metal singers - original Metal Church vocalist David Wayne. In this homage to the Seattle band, we will look at the history of this venerable old school band and how it ties in with so many other acts while fulfilling its history. We will also bring you the rich history that Metal Church and all of its offshoots have lived through. Because, with Metal Church there is six degrees of separation from several other groups.
Back in the late seventies, Aberdeen's son Kurdt Vanderhoof was living in the San Francisco bay area. He played for a hardcore punk band by the name of The Lewd. As he started listening to the early prototypes of the British invasion of metal, he had an epiphany. Kurdt decided he'd rather start playing metal music, so he began talks with a few of the members of another San Francisco act - Leviathan. Together they formed Anvil Chorus - The Church of Metal, later shortening it. The rest of Leviathan left and formed Vienna.
Kurdt would later abbreviate the name to Metal Church, which was a sobriquet for his apartment/crash pad. Kurdt is of the Christian faith, but he worshipped metal even more. He decided not to get into proselytizing when writing lyrics, preferring themes anyone can relate to. On the early demos, he'd cover songs like "Highway Star" since it dealt with the simple subject matter of a car, continuing to keep it to basic themes. That track started the tradition of the band putting a cover song here and there on its releases. The early Metal Church songs also dealt a bit in horror and metal themes and gradually started drifting towards politics and existential subject matter.
The first demo Metal Church put out was an instrumental three song offering. Later, Billy McKay was the first unofficial vocalist before he left the helm to join Griffin. On those next two demos, even Lars Ulrich was in discussion to be in the band before he ended up joining Metallica. Vocalist Ed Bull joined for a while, but tensions between he and guitarist Ricky Condran were so great that something had to give. Bassist Steve Haat left to join Billy in Griffin and eventually went on to glamsters Jetboy. Then a couple more members left and decided to officially name themselves Anvil Chorus, while the others that left ended up forming Control.
That was the abbreviated version of the changes in the early incarnation of Metal Church. What is truly dizzying is that this was only just the beginning. Before actually performing for the first time as Metal Church, Kurdt went back to the Seattle area and Doug Piercy left the band to join Heathen. Kurdt briefly took the moniker Schrapnel until vocalist Mike Murphy left to join Rogues Gallery. Vanderhoof then recruited the first recognized vocalist David Wayne and the band actually debuted as Metal Church in Aberdeen, with the Melvins opening that night.
Tracks from those early demos, especially "Four Hymns," were put onto Metal Church's self-titled debut on Ground Zero records. Prior to the debut, they had one song on that label's Northwest Metalfest compilation - the track "Deathwish." The year was 1984 and this record took the metal world by storm with its epic heavy sound and killer songs such as the title track and "Gods of Wrath." This album sold over 70,000 copies before being re-released by Elektra. The members of Metallica had basically told Elektra to sign these guys before someone else did. A tour with Metallica followed in 1985.
By the time that revolutionary second album "The Dark" was released, Metal Church was reaching the zenith of its popularity. The killer title track became an alltime classic anthem along with "Line of Death." That latter song came out during the Reagan years when there was a dispute in international waters off the coast of Libya and got linked to Ghaddafi. Metal Church was always good about putting a political theme into its music, something Kurdt probably got from his punk rock days. "Watch the Children Play" had heavy rotation on MTV and catapulted this finely produced record into the stratosphere. In a scene where there was poofy hair on one side and guys with leather and spikes on the other, there sat Metal Church squarely in the middle. Half the guys had short hair and they all wore jeans and denim jackets, and they represented everyone.
What should have been the pinnacle of success for Metal Church ended up becoming a plague of line-up changes. Kurdt then started limiting his involvement in the band from a live standpoint, opting to only compose. David Wayne then exited the band, which years later was revealed to be about substance abuse issues. When he left, he began working with Gene Allen of Lizzy Borden and briefly collaborated with Heathen in 1989. This is when ex-Heretic singer Mike Howe came in an filled the vocal vacancy. Metal Church then went about releasing its third album, "Blessing in Disguise," at the end of the eighties. Kurdt had chosen Howe when he met him during producing the first Heretic album. John Marshall of Blind Illusion came in to join Craig Wells as second axeman during Kurdt's absence. Mike Howe was a good choice as Wayne's replacement, which is evident when listening to tracks such as "Fake Healer."
As is the case with most musicians, Kurdt missed being active in a band and formed Hall Aflame during this period, putting out one album - "Guaranteed Forever" on IRS records. Mike Howe even guested on Bootsauce's "Bull" album in his spare time. It was during this time that John Marshall replaced James Hetfield on tour for the second time. This time James had a burnt hand and the first time around he'd broken his wrist skateboarding. Metal Church had entered the nineties now, and with it came that fantastic album "The Human Factor" on Epic Records. That title track about fake (or lack of) musicianship in the bands those days is so on the money. During this time when Mike Howe was the vocalist, David Wayne took the rest of Mike's former band Heretic and formed Reverend. As you can see, a lot of these band's histories are intertwined.
After Reverend's self-titled EP on Caroline records, they put out the full-length "World Won't Miss You" on the Charisma label. That album was dedicated to Armored Saint guitarist Dave Prichard, who died of leukemia, and featured cameos by Rocky George of Suicidal Tendencies and Chris Goss of Masters of Reality. Wayne recruited a second guitarist for the "Play God" album and got Juan Garcia of Evil Dead to do backing vocals. That album had a cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son." By 1993, with true metal getting the shaft stateside, Reverend put out "Live," added Ernesto Martinez on guitar and relocated to Yakima, Washington where they were the house band for The Little Dutch Inn for six months before relocating to Tacoma.
By now, Kurdt Vanderhoof and Metal Church had put out their fifth album "Hanging in the Balance." This album was issued on Joan Jett's label Blackhearts records and it fizzled. Such was the state of powerful metal in America, unfortunately. All the line-up changes in Metal Church sure didn't help either. Mike Howe left the fold and moved to Tennessee to concentrate on family life. He and Kurdt are still friends to this day, though. In this time of inactivity, Kurdt started his signature band - Vanderhoof in 1997. This is where Kurdt's prog rock leanings first become evident, although this band was much more metallic in nature than some of his other projects, which we'll get into later.
Kirk Arrington joined him in the band, which released its debut on SPV records later that year. The label put the pressure on Kurdt to reform Metal Church, which it did gradually by putting out a live album featuring material from the first two albums. Then, Metal Church decided to reform with the classic line-up of Wayne at the helm in 1998. Vintage Metal Church put out the 1999 record "Masterpeace," which featured a cover of the song "Toys in the Attic." This would mark the first time in twelve years that Kurdt would return to perform with the band. The revamped line-up already showed signs of fracture when the band went on tour later that year with Thunderhead, having to replace the rhythm section with members of Vanderhoof. By 2001, many of those differences that had affected Metal Church the first time around started rearing up again. David Wayne subsequently exited again, taking a few members with him.
At first he started the band ByFist with Warrior guitarist Joe Floyd, releasing the "Adrenalin" EP. Reverend also re-emerged in 2001 with the "A Gathering of Demos" EP on Nuclear Blast records. Craig Wells also ended up leaving Metal Church, briefly joining David Wayne's other band named David Wayne - curiously releasing an album titled "Metal Church." The new line-up of David Wayne's eponymous band (yes, he was juggling three bands) featured members of Warrior, Joined Forces, Geezer, Yngwie Malmsteen and Thunderhead. Kurdt also found the need to be active in this transitional period, releasing the second Vanderhoof album "A Blur in Time." The end of 2003 saw David Wayne start yet another group, Bastardsun, with Stuart Antsis from Cradle of Filth.
Kurdt also formed a new Metal Church line-up in 2003, along with starting the prog rock band Presto Ballet. Metal Church had posted local tryout gigs under the name of Mental Search, and from this came Malice guitarist Jay Reynolds, bassist Steve Unger and Rottweiler singer Ronny Munroe. As he went about the unenviable task of replacing David Wayne and Mike Howe on the Metal Church mantle, at least Ronny had the confidence to not be daunted. He has that low operatic pitch similar to John Arch that no doubt won over the band. You have to be good to sing for Metal Church. He had experience prior to Rottweiler though, having been in the Seattle bands Metal Gods and Glamm Slamm.
Ronny Munroe had grown up listening to Metal Church, even singing to "Gods of Wrath" in his car, never knowing that one day he'd be living it. He was about to go to Wacken 10 with his band when he got the call from Metal Church. He brought with him Rottweiler guitarist Rick Van Zandt. He settled into his role as new lead singer, releasing the seventh album "Weight of the World" in 2004. A winter tour followed that year with 3 Inches Of Blood. During this time, David Wayne's Metal Church began organizing a big tour.
Then came December of 2004, when Wayne was in a head-on collision in Tacoma. While he recuperated from his grave injuries, he still stubbornly refused to get adequate bed rest. Metal is in his blood, so he went and performed at the "Texas Metal Health" show in March to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. His severe leg injuries flared up, causing him to pass out on stage, but he astonishingly gave it 150% and sang on the ground after collapsing. Upon returning home, he suffered complications from all his accident-related injuries and passed away on May 10, 2005. The world lost a great metal singer, and Reverend actually continues on to this day in his memory. Around the time of David Wayne's demise, Metal Church took some time off and cancelled a big tour they were to head out on, instead opting to go on the less involved American Black tour with WASP.
Kurdt was affected badly by this, but he tries not to show it because he's a man of few words. He realizes that a lot of people will always link David Wayne to Metal Church's sound, although that was two singers ago, and he respects that. What some people don't realize is that Metal Church is really Kurdt's band, as he's been there since the beginning and continued to be. Metal Church always was based around the super loud thundering guitar of Kurdt Vanderhoof, probably the loudest guitarist in metal. He could achieve a greater effect with a few slow and loud riffs than any guitarist trying to play a million miles an hour.
2006 ushered in the 20th anniversary of the classic album "The Dark," thereby prompting the title of the eighth Metal Church album "A Light in the Dark." They did an updated rendition of "Watch the Children Play," which was dedicated to the memory of David Wayne. Like the last album, all songs were collaborated on by Vanderhoof and Munroe. Kurdt was thankful that Ronny helped him with the material. They hadn't done any cover songs in a while, but in an interview Kurdt said that one day he'd like to cover Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man." Now that would be something. Kurdt added Jeff Plate to the band, a musician he knew from Savatage and from his time as a sound engineer for the Trans Siberian Orchestra. The year was 2009 and Metal Church released its ninth studio album "This Present Wasteland."
Metal Church took a hiatus from performing due to Kurdt's back problems flaring up again. He did continue in the studio, helping produce the new Vanderhoof material and Ronny Munroe's solo album. Sadly, 2009 marked Metal Church disbanding following its performance at Rocklahoma. They basically got fed up with the industry and lack of promotion the band got. Munroe entered Presto Ballet with Vanderhoof and Jeff Plate joined Machines of Grace. Presto Ballet released the EP "Love What You've Done with the Place." Presto Ballet is now Kurdt's official band, where he channels his inner prog rocker. The band has a neat sound, quite similar to Emerson Lake and Palmer. Presto Ballet is already on its third album, 2011's "Invisible Places."
Ronny had to leave Presto Ballet due to the touring obligations of Trans Siberian Orchestra, his new gig. He hit the big time and Kurdt is happy for him, recruiting Chuck Campbell in his wake as the new vocalist in 2012. Ronny also has a new solo CD, "Lords of the Edge," recently releasing it at a party at the Backstage Bar and Grill in Tacoma. Kurdt, meanwhile, had closed up his house in Aberdeen and tried moving the band to Britain, where the prog rock scene is really big. He didn't realize how bad the rate of exchange is for the U.S. dollar, making everything cost more. So, he spent a few weeks in a motel room drinking beer and moved back to the States to resume playing with Presto Ballet. Will Metal Church ever reform? They have disbanded before, and judging by their history anything is possible.
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