It may not have been a Sunday, but church was in session last Friday night at the Rock Box. Metal Church once again preached the gospel of heavy music with the help of Phoenix natives Images of Eden, Atlanta rockers Halcyon Way, local veterans Isolaydead and San Antonio thrashers X.I.L. to a packed Box.
While the “Reverend” David Wayne has passed on as Metal Church’s original vocalist, his 1989 replacement Mike Howe returned to the Rock Box for the second time since undertaking his second stint in 2015 with the band led by guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof. Along with guitarist Rick Van Zandt, bassist Steve Unger and new drummer Stet Howland, Metal Church continues to forge on with Damned If You Do, another collection of heavy yet catchy tunes in the vein of XI, the album that signified Howe’s comeback.
Unilke Metal Church’s previous two visits — when Howe and Vanderhoof spoke with ATM, respectively, here and here — this time elicited a nearly sold out Rock Box. Not only were the Metal Church supporters out in full force, but so were musicians of various local bands such as Las Cruces and Metalriser in support of warmup acts Isolaydead and X.I.L. (see 71-photo slideshow below).
The latter’s lead guitarist, Joseph Aguilar, provided arguably the most metal occurrence of the evening when multiple strings broke during finale cover “The Witching Hour,” shortly after performing “Full Throttle Ass Kicking.” Aguilar persevered with “the show must go on” mentality before tossing his axe aside in disgust at set’s end. Catch them in action with ATM’s Facebook Live footage of “Speed Demons.”
Isolaydead kept the local flavor going after X.I.L. to the tunes of “Indignation,” “Life Feeds On Life” and “Obscene Deviation.” Singer/bassist Rick Vela and his trio also paid homage to Sepultura with “Attitude” before culminating with “Evil Wings,” all the while showing gratitude and appreciation for his peers who came out to support the support.
The national acts followed next with Halcyon Way vocalist Steve Braun doing something small yet very meaningful that most national acts don’t take the time to do. Prior to “Ten Thousand Ways,” Braun gave props to the bill’s local acts (and actually pronounced their names correctly) and encouraged its adopted-for-a-night “nailheads’ to do the same. He then explained how fill-in drummer Luka learned the band’s setlist in two days while undertaking only his fourth show with the group after Aaron Baumoel injured his arm and neck (ATM Facebook Live footage here).
Mohawked and sunglasses-wearing lead guitarist Jon Bodan provided his usual enthusiastic energy and death-metal backup vocals to Braun’s melodic harmonies, as he did when Halcyon Way opened for Sevendust in 2013 in the parking lot next door at the now-defunct Backstage Live/Alamo City Music Hall. The Georgia rockers performed five of their six songs from latest album Bloody But Unbowed, opening with the title track and adding intense offering “Blame” plus “The Church of Me” — told ya church was in session — and ending with the album’s closer “Desolate.”
Arizona natives Images Of Eden were making their San Antonio live debut but had to shorten their seven-song set by a couple of tunes. As the fourth warmup act on the bill and with things slightly behind schedule, Metal Church’s appearance was becoming overdue. But first, Images Of Eden offered up “Harvest Day,” “Godless” and “Shield Me.” Similar in style to their predecessors on stage, Images Of Eden made a more than respectful showing, as evidenced on “Twice Upon a Time.”
Alas, it would not have been fruitful to keep the night’s higher power waiting much longer. Metal Church came out strong with the title track to Damned If You Do, followed up with the only XI tune of the evening “Needle and Suture,” and harkened back to Howe’s debut Blessing In Disguise with MTV hit “Badlands.” Vanderhoof recounted how his 2017 visit resulted in a struggle with the flu but that he was much healthier this go-round. As such, Metal Church went back to The Dark with the likes of “Start the Fire” and “Watch the Children Pray,” the latter meshing with killer new track “The Black Things.” (ATM footage below).
Surprisingly, and a bit unfortunate for those who caught Metal Church’s previous two performances here, the night’s track listing was a virtual carbon copy of the show two years ago save for the new songs. Metal Church missed a golden opportunity to grace the diehards with Wayne favorites “Metal Church,” “Gods of Wrath” and “Ton of Bricks” along with Howe staples “Rest In Pieces (April 15, 1912)” — its ode to The Titanic’s demise — or “The Spell Can’t Be Broken.” At the expense of those, Metal Church unnecessarily repeated the lesser-known and average “Gods of Second Chance” and “No Friend Of Mine,” both from Hanging in the Balance. They did go back to the first album, however, with cult classic “Beyond the Black,” even though a backing track for Howe was evident. And “Start the Fire” satiated the appetite for awhile, leaving some of us wanting more.
Metal Church’s lone deviation from the printed setlist was flipping encores “In Mourning” and “Fake Healer” — which they remade with Queensryche vocalist Todd La Torre — choosing the latter as the finale. Two years ago, both of those songs opened the show.
One major difference for Metal Church this time was the appearance of drummer Stet Howland, who joined the group shortly after the 2017 Rock Box show. Howland not only has his stamp across several W.A.S.P. albums but also took part in Killing Machine with Helstar vocalist James Rivera and his one-time W.A.S.P. bassmate Johnny Rod. As such, Howland enjoyed his return to the Alamo City, happily fist-bumping fans, along with Howe, Vanderhoof, Unger and Van Zandt and meeting with many of them afterwards (see slideshow).
Considering Metal Church’s future looked bleak a decade ago after Vanderhoof announced the band was done, and Howe was practically in solitary confinement from making music, any return of the heavy gospel to San Antonio is a welcome sight and music to many ears. And while it’s a given with Vanderhoof at the helm that the Wayne era and Howe’s early material will always be an impetus for Metal Church’s persevering existence, hopefully they’ll dig deeper into their old stuff and, with the exception of must-haves such as “Watch the Children Pray,” pull out a new batch of classics on their biannual rotation of tour stops. That would certainly answer some prayers meant not just for the children, but those who spent a bulk of their adolescence listening to Metal Church’s wide array of timeless and influential metal.