Metal Church - Blessing in Disguise (1989)Release ID: 1545
San Francisco-based heavy metal legends Metal Church have been a part of my life since way back when I was in my very early teenage years with their 1989 third album “Blessing In Disguise” being my entry point to the band. My introduction came through the inclusion of opening track “Fake Healer” on a late-night underground metal radio program I used to listen to religiously while recording it for repeat listens during the coming week. That experience would lead to me exploring all three of Metal Church’s 1980’s albums during the next few months, all of which I got some level of enjoyment out of. With my life-long obsession with a more extreme brand of metal just kicking off at the time though, I’d opt not to follow Metal Church into the 1990’s & have heard very little of the eleven subsequent full-lengths they’ve released since 1989. I did enjoy the tracks I heard from their 1991 fourth record “The Human Factor” back in the day but never committed to giving the album a comprehensive review while the only other experience I’ve had with Metal Church has come through their 1981 “Red Skies” demo which I found to be decidedly average. Around seven or eight years ago though, the Metal Academy podcast saw me returning to Metal Church’s self-titled debut for an in-depth historical review & I found it to be a less consistent record than I remembered it to be although it’s highlights were nothing short of mind-blowing. I revisited 1986’s “The Dark” sophomore album only a few months ago &, once again, found it to lack the impact it had during my youth. Both are certainly entertaining records in their own right but I can’t say that I class either of them as being essential these days which leads me back to where I started with Metal Church i.e. their 1989 third full-length “Blessing In Disguise”.
Metal Church had undergone a couple of fairly major line-up changes in the three years since “The Dark” with front man David Wayne & founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof having been replaced by Heretic vocalist Mike Howe & Blind Illusion axeman John Marshall (who was famously also James Hetfield’s guitar technician). Drug addiction had gotten the better of Wayne & there are conflicting reports as to whether he quit in order to focus on his rehabilitation or was fired by the remaining band members but he’d go on to form Seattle thrash metal outfit Reverend the following year. Vanderhoof had decided to put all of his time into learning how to produce & engineer records but would remain a part of the Metal Church family in some capacity as he’d continue to contribute to the song-writing despite no longer being a full-time member of the band. Both would return as full-time members of Metal Church almost a decade later in 1998.
Metal Church’s label Elektra Records would engage producer Terry Date for the “Blessing In Disguise” sessions. Terry had produced Metal Church’s highly praised 1984 self-titled debut album & had also handled the engineering duties for “The Dark” so one would imagine that he was almost a part of the furniture by that point. He was also accumulating a pretty decent production resume that already included Fifth Angel’s self-titled & Liege Lord’s “Master Control”, both of which are considered to be minor US power metal classics these days. “Blessing In Disguise” doesn’t sound quite as good as you’d imagine it might though to be honest. Metal Church would certainly have benefited from a thicker, chunkier guitar tone & I’m not the biggest fan of the snare sound either. There’s also a fair bit of variation in sound between the various tracks which is a little bit dodgy. These production issues aren’t a deal breaker by any means but they’re worth mentioning nonetheless as I think “Blessing In Disguise” could have been a fair bit better if it was presented with a heavier aesthetic.
The tracklisting kicks off in massive style with the before-mentioned “Fake Healer” being an all-time classic of the US power metal movement in my opinion. Powerful new front man Howe makes an immediate impact & proves himself to not only be a match for Wayne but to possess a potency that Wayne would struggle to match. Howe sounds noticeably more epic & reminds me of some of the bigger voices in metal like WASP’s Blackie Lawless or Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch. In fact, I’d suggest that he’s one of my all-time favourite heavy metal singers so his acquisition can only be deemed to be positive as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately though, the remaining eight tracks struggle to meet the same stratospheric levels as “Fake Healer” but that doesn’t stop the album from achieving a new-found consistency that was missing on either of the two previous records, both of which suffered from a couple of duds. The first two thirds of the tracklisting are particularly solid with the quality dropping a touch over the back end. Other than the prestigious opener, some of the highlights include “Badlands”, “Rest in Pieces (April 15, 1912)”, “Of Unsound Mind” & “The Spell Can’t Be Broken”.
Stylistically, “Blessing In Disguise” is the very definition of US power metal sound with the tracklisting being a combination of heavy metal, power metal, thrash metal & speed metal. Interestingly, I find the couple of faster, more thrashy tunes (“It’s A Secret” & “Cannot Tell A Lie”) to be some of the least impressive inclusions which is out of line with my taste profile. It’s worth noting though that, as with both of Metal Church’s previous albums, any attempts to tag this record as a genuine thrash or speed metal release are overly ambitious as there is far more of a classic heavy metal vibe going on here. The thrash/speed metal material represents more of a changeup than anything.
I dunno how much to put down to my preference for Howe’s vocals but I can’t help but find “Blessing In Disguise” to be my favourite Metal Church record these days. Perhaps nostalgia has played a role in that position given that it was my introduction to the band at such a young age? It’s certainly possible but I suspect not. I just think those first couple of albums suffered from some inconsistencies in quality while this one seems to have overcome that issue. If you’re into American bands like Flotsam & Jetsam, Savatage & Vicious Rumors then “Blessing In Disguise” should be essential listening.
This is the first (and perhaps only) Metal Church record I had any time for. With the departure of David Wayne and the arrival of Mike Howe I heard a settling of the Metal Church song writing - which is odd because the majority of Blessing in Disguise was written by the still present Kurdt Vanderhoof (who wasn't a full time band member at this point), John Marshall and Craig Wells. Marshall was Vanderhoof's replacement and came from good stead having been Metallica's guitar roadie (already having stood in for Hetfield in 1986 after James went one way and his skateboard the other) and he also had a brief stint in Blind Illusion.
The new blood in the band certainly grounded things in comparison to their previous two full-lengths which to me lacked consistency and power overall (the lack of the latter being due to the lack of momentum from the former). Although album number three was not perfect by any means it was a step up for me and one that I do find myself revisiting more than any other. Worth mentioning here is that my attention is grabbed from the off by the great Fake Healer which is racy and aggressive and oozes quality which carries well into the more measured Rest In Pieces...and despite the clunky lyrical structure to Of Unsound Mind it does fit the title well and kind of still fits in with a strong opening.
In fact I only think the album really comes unstuck at around the instrumental track It's A Secret which although is energetic it lacks substance overall and heralds the weaker part of the album over these final three tracks. Album closer The Powers That Be is perhaps the worst track on here in all honesty. It feels overall that more thought went into this record than on previous outings, like the band had matured and learned from previous mistakes, exercising some quality control if not entirely managing to pull it off across all of the album. This album feels like an accurate summary of the band in terms of their career for me. They always promised so much and got plaudits and accolades galore but I was never entirely sure why, had they been able to make more albums like this and control line-up changes better then maybe they would occupy a more heady status in my opinion.
After loving the debut self-titled album, Metal Church disappointed me a little bit with The Dark. I figured this one was unlikely to win me over, particularly after hearing that vocalist David Wayne had been replaced for this release. As it has turned out, I find Blessing in Disguise to be a much better album than I'd expected. On top of that, Mike Howe's vocals are great, so the loss of Wayne had no effect on quality.
The album starts with the almost stadium rock of Fake Healer that can't help but get under your skin. Then the brilliant Rest in Pieces follows, leaving me with no uncertainty that Metal Church had come up with a winner. The riffs are consistently attention grabbing, the song structures highly memorable and the leads are decent too. Highlights for me are Rest in Pieces, Badlands and the instrumental It's a Secret. I do think that Anthem to the Estranged overstays it's welcome somewhat, being 9 and half minutes long without doing all that much for me. And Cannot Tell a Lie doesn't quite meet the standard of the rest of the album, so while I really like this album, I can't rate it higher than a solid 4 stars.