SummaryHard to pigeonhole, easy to enjoy
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There are two things you can be certain about when it comes down to Metal Church. For one, they retained a sense of integrity over the decades. Second of all, most of their records feature their own characteristics, making them just different enough from each other to enjoy. Hanging in the Balance is yet another example of such; it’s arguably the band’s most melodic album, even if most of these tunes don’t fall under the “become loud with the crowd” category either (which I guess would result into an album full of shortened “Badlands” over and over again).
As the previous two albums had already exemplified, the early Mike Howe era of Metal Church was full of experimentation within metal’s unclear boundaries with Hanging in the Balance being the oddball out of these three (and perhaps out of the band’s discography as well). “Gods of Second Chance” doesn’t kick off with any rapid or heavy riffs; instead it sounds surprisingly atmospheric. Duke Erickson’s bass-driven introduction sets the score for the tune before Mike Howe screams out in fright. A melodic, yet appealing riff kicks in and… vanishes. The bass leads the track forward again, while haunting guitars take a step back – not until that vocally-loud chorus again at least. Sounds like an odd description, doesn’t it? Needless to say, it’s a perfect example of how unexpected, if enjoyable Hanging in the Balance can be. Far from a sellout album (although I wouldn’t be surprised if some nutcases would claim the band did), the first few tunes on the record put more emphasis on moods and vocal-centered hooks, yet you could hardly call this album accessible in a conventional sense. Sure, “Losers in the Game” is an exception – it goes one ear in and… never leaves your head after that; working all the way towards that instantly-memorable chorus. I can’t be the only one who thinks that the vocal lines are partially inspired by that of Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law”, but it’s a great track anyway and clearly superior to the aforementioned Judas Priest tune… so what the hell does it matter. “Conductor” has even more of an edge to it, mainly because of those engaged riffs swinging around Mike Howe’s almost rap-like vocal delivery and while it’s not as heavy as, say, ”The Spell Can’t Be Broken”, it’s certainly on par with the heaviest cuts that The Human Factor had to offer.
The real magic happens once you dive further into Hanging in the Balance and it makes me wish this line-up of Metal Church had never dissolved in the first place. “Waiting for a Savior” is a top-class ballad of nostalgic cleaner sections until an explosive chorus reveals itself in full force. “Little Boy” might be the best of the best; a song about Hiroshima that’s dramatic in the best way possible. Mike Howe crawls into different roles – sounding both innocent and malicious, while guitars evoke tragedy, up to a point that the guitars start to rage onward during the number’s suspenseful peak. “End of the Age” is another longer tune, where Mike Howe sounds as if he’s singing hymns near the campfire during a full moon. Folky, moving guitar passages gradually shift into heavier passages and the result is another evocative quasi-epic: so picture your inner cowboy heading into the wilderness and enjoy the ride.
As fantastic as these latter highlights are, they also provide a minor issue that I have with Hanging in the Balance: they easily overshadow the remaining songs that rely on their hooks, choruses and vocals. One might wonder if Metal Church weren’t underplaying their strengths and I can’t be the only one who wonders what a record full of emotional epics would end up like. Anyway, Hanging in the Balance hardly turns sour (“Lovers and Madmen” excluded, that’s a piss-poor tune that doesn’t work as a fitting interlude nor as an actual track), but considering its runtime and pacing, the semi-trippy “Hypnotized” and the anti-climactic ending of “A Subtle War” could have easily been left out. Otherwise there’s nothing to fear here, cause Hanging in the Balance is a great album and it also marks the end of an era for Metal Church – certainly on a high note.
Release date: October 7th, 1993
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