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Whatever you might think of the style of this album, whatever you might think of the style of other Metal Church albums; whatever you might think of the cover of Hanging in the Balance, whatever you might think of Mike Howe generally - it is practically indisputable that the performance he gives here is one of the best in heavy metal. Period. What he is able to do on songs like 'Waiting for a Savior' is utterly transform decent, mid-tempo heavy metal/hard rock into driving, emotionally-charged crescendos that drop every minute or so back to delicate, intelligent verses. His voice is electric when he goes for power, shrieking in a high register that borders on the edge of control, about an octave below Overkill's Blitz and about a million dollars up the pay scale. The power, nuance, and resonance that he manages to deliver in the chorus of 'Waiting for a Savior' or the similarly immaculate planning of 'Gods of Second Chance' puts to shame just about everyone else I can think of, barring Blind Guardian - and that's only on BG's good days.
The rest of the band, it must be said, don't live up to that standard, though it wouldn't have been necessary for them to do too much provided they could give Howe a decent platform. The approach is different to most past albums from Metal Church, with no thrash or power elements present and a notably less aggressive feel to the instrumentation that leaves some of the riffs barely dangling on the edge of metal, such is the lack of sharpness and distortion at times. The regularity of ballad verses is higher than before, although the band rarely run through an entire song in that style, switching things up for the chorus or only opening the song softly, as occurs in the multi-part 'Little Boy'.
The riffing can hardly be called prolific, although Craig Wells and John Marshall have enough success with the two or three riffs per song to ensure that nobody will feel too hard up on that score. The solos, on the other hand, are slightly muted due to a formulaic construction (mostly rock scale stuff) and the lack of bite in their tone and execution, which means that the most significant lead instrument is the vocals. There are some nice guitar moments, such as towards the back end of 'Down by the River', where we almost get a duel going, while 'Conductor' is the song that would have benefitted from a more cutting edge, since it packs on the pace and anger. On the rhythm front, the description of the album as heavy metal/hard rock should hint that there isn't such a complex drumming performance from Kirk Arrington, though he manages to play around some of the softer sections in 'End of an Age' and emphasizes the faster riffs well. Duke Erickson plays more of a supporting role on bass, yet there are moments when he shines through (the opening of 'A Subtle War' is all his), something which the generous production allows us to hear.
However, it's not really worth talking about the band if we don't take a look at the songwriting, which is the only thing that comes close to Mike Howe on Hanging in the Balance. I don't know how the fuck these guys came up with such consistently good ideas and linked them together so well, but let's just say that if you told me voodoo magic was involved I would probably be in agreement. Keeping the lengthy 'Little Boy' and 'End of an Age' together for 7 or 8 minutes must be applauded, especially as the first morphs through several different styles and the latter drives more at the point. The transition between twisting riffing through "bomb sequence" and back again in 'Little Boy' is risky, since all the regular instruments drop out and the low menace of electronic organ (?) drones in, capturing the appalling slow motion of the atomic bomb dropping onto Japan down to a tee. The songs which deserve the greatest praise are probably those towards the opening of the album, because the first half is simply rock-solid economy and hooks in practically every song. The tautness of the writing works better than on the slightly flabby Mike Howe album Blessing in Disguise, though it's the manner in which the band are able to start fresh on every song that really makes this a success, since there aren't any songs cowering in the shadow of others.
For the praise that has generally been bestowed on this Metal Church effort, it isn't perfect. Sure, it captures the kind of vibe that so many bands were reaching for in the '90s, but it also sounds like a product of its time, occasionally reminding one of other contemporary stars such as some of the stadium bands and even Alice in Chains on 'End of an Age'. There's also the nagging feeling of what this would have sounded like without Mike Howe, which sure as shit would have been a whole lot worse and probably could have exposed more weaknesses in the performance of the instrumentalists. Additionally, despite the fact that there aren't any bad tracks, one might feel that 'Hypnotized' and 'A Subtle War' don't pull their weight, while 'Lovers and Madmen' is an unnecessary (though very good) instrumental thrown in near the end.
On balance though, this is still a dominant display of songwriting skills and a vocal performance that you need to witness, culminating in such cuts as 'Waiting for a Savior', 'End of an Age', and the godly 'Gods of Second Chance'. Regardless of whether you think Metal Church are relevant or not, this album surely is.