Metal Church embrace the Loudness war!
Actually, carelessly applying this bad habit to their creation has almost ruined Damned If You Do! For those who don’t know, the “Loudness War” is a common routine that started becoming a real pest in the late 80’s/early 90’s with the advent of digital recordings and has since been used by many bands and artists craving for their 15 minutes of fame. A routine that consists of nothing but trying to be more in-your-face than anyone else in radio shows or on CD, a process that’s sacrificing dynamics and sound quality for increased base volume just to appear louder than the song broadcast before or after it.
So even though it might seem like it after that first paragraph, I’m really not an audiophile who’s incredibly hard to please when it comes to mixing levels, mastering, etc. but in all honesty, I haven’t heard a 2010+ release by a big metal band with such an ear-fatiguing production job. You know, when I have to turn off my car radio, monitor speakers or stereo after a mere 20 minutes because of my cochlea’s sensory cells enduring rising levels of discomfort, something’s gone terribly wrong.
Such issues aside, Damned If You Do would have been a fine successor to 2016’s Mike Howe comeback album XI, perhaps even edging it out slightly due to the stronger individual highlights contained within. Songs like the soaring, riffy and even mantra-infused title-track or the anthemic “Revolution Underway” turned out stronger and more addictive than their similar counterparts “Reset” and “Signal Path” on said predecessor. Variation is achieved through the inclusion of muscular speed metal tracks like “Out of Balance” or hard rock-ish, almost AC/DC-esque tunes in form of “Monkey Finger” and with the rest of the pack settled somewhere in-between. Even my least favourite musician partaking in this incarnation of Metal Church – Mr. “playing-solos-for-the-sake-of-it” Rick Van Zandt – has stepped up his game here significantly, delivering some of his more respectable melodic licks throughout the album. Sure, you’ll have forgotten about most of them after the “The War Electric” has ended its run but that’s still better than having to constantly curse the man for ruining a big-ass Vanderhoof guitar riff with aimless fretboard noodling, something which he apparently loved to do on the previous record.
Much bigger props to Stet Howland though, the man had been fighting (and crushing!) some mean cancer prior to this album’s creation and he definitely sounds recovered – not a weak link at all. While Stet is certainly not the focal point here, he provides some appealing rhythms garnered with spirited, nifty tom-heavy fills. One can tell that he’s got a more obvious classic heavy metal background (W.A.S.P!) compared to former skin beater Jeff Plate’s rather thunderous approach; too bad his snare drum sounds lifeless and dull, like it’s part of a cheapo entry-level drum kit recorded with a few too many bottom-heavy mics strapped to the lower half of the rack, subduing the desired prominence of the cymbals as well…
Yeah, this brings me back to the only major downer on this record, the crackbrained handling of the production. Did no one realize that this album sounds too harsh-as-fuck when things go loud? Hell, this is no bedroom black metal project we are dealing with here – this is a classic metal heavy weight! There’s too much compression on (semi-)clean open chords, lead guitars and higher-pitched/layered vocals, rendering many climatic, loud moments useless due to the almost unbearable fuzz and clipping. Go listen to the chorus of “Revolution Underway” a few times; at first these issues may sound minor to you, but over the course of the whole album you WILL feel prompted to turn Damned… the fuck down and that’s not what heavy metal is supposed to make you do, right? This judgment is not solely based on the promo that our webzine received – the same problems occur on the band’s official YouTube-streams and have been confirmed by owners of the actual physical CD as well. I’m incredibly sorry for making this issue the crucial point in my review, since the band themselves deserve more than that but goddammit – this record would score a solid 75/100 points in my book for being a worthy sophomore effort after the successful Mike Howe reunion, but due to the fact that I cannot get through this album’s running time in a single listen because I prefer my ears intact, I have to deduct 15 points for (deliberately!?) hiring a tone-deaf producer. A shame really, as it could have been a non-revolutionary, yet solid slab of catchy early 90s-styled heavy metal with a lot of replay value but as it stands, I can hardly imagine coming back to this for more than a few selected songs.