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If it appears the gospel of heavy music being spread by Metal Church these days has a different pastor, that's only partly true. Vocalist Mike Howe is back in the fold after a 21-year absence from the group, and the music industry as a whole, and demonstrated Friday night at The Rock Box in San Antonio he still possesses his chops in a live setting. 

Playing in the Alamo City three years and four days to the day of its previous visit when Ronny Munroe was the singer, Metal Church reminded the congregation inside the downtown bar of what it was missing when the group disbanded in 2009. Dominating its 13-song set with Howe-era material from 1989's Blessing in Disguise, 1991's The Human Factor and 1993's Hanging in the Balance, Metal Church opened with the first track from that first Howe disc (watch AXS' footage of "Fake Healer"). The song, about a young girl whose family couldn't afford to pay for her transplant and was left to die by medical personnel, had Howe and The Rock Box jumping from the outset.

The Rock Box very rarely books bands that incite moshing, as it tends to lean more toward the hard-rock and classic-rock spectrum. But Metal Church bucked the trend as a sizable number of metalheads intensified their enthusiasm on other Howe-era tracks such as "In Mourning" and somewhat surprising choices "Gods of a Second Chance" and "No Friend of Mine." But as Howe explained to AXS prior to taking the stage (watch here), Metal Church had to continue to move forward if he was to return. The end product is XI, and the group unveiled new tracks "Needle & Suture," "No Tomorrow" and "Killing Your Time."

Although guitarist and founder Kurdt Vanderhoof, Howe, guitarist Rick Van Zandt, bassist Steve Unger and drummer Jeff Plate broke out tracks from the era of its original singer, the late "Reverend" David Wayne with "Watch the Children Pray" and "Start the Fire," The Rock Box patrons were eager to hear something from the debut self-titled album. They thought they were about to get it when Howe declared, "We're going to go way back." His ensuing pause had many waiting with bated breath until he finished with, "to last March" as he introduced the third new song of the show. The wait turned out to be worth it, however, when Metal Church ended the regular portion of its set with "Beyond the Black."

The crowd, and the band, were guilty of at least one inexplicable moment apiece. For the fans, it was incredulous that many in the crowd didn't appear to know one of the group's biggest MTV hits, "Date With Poverty." For the band, it was hard to believe "Ton of Bricks" and "Gods of Wrath" were omitted from the one hour, 27-minute set.

Nevertheless, those on hand could count their blessings that they were witnessing Metal Church again for two reasons: Vanderhoof was sick and persevered through the performance, often disappearing behind the curtain, possibly to play his parts while seated. In fact, he told fans after finale "The Human Factor" he didn't want to high-five them because of his bout with sinuses. Secondly, Vanderhoof had formally announced eight years ago that Metal Church was calling it quits.

But by the power of divine intervention, perhaps, or at least the fury of the group's music and intelligence of its lyrics, Metal Church is back preaching the gospel of songs that have stood the test of time through three vocalists and a slew of record-industry misfortunes.

For that, San Antonians, and metal fans everywhere, can be thankful.

SETLIST: "Fake Healer," "In Mourning," "Needle & Suture," "Start the Fire," "Gods of a Second Chance," "Date With Poverty," "No Tomorrow," "Watch the Children Pray," "No Friend of Mine," "Killing Your Time," "Beyond the Black." Encores: "Badlands," "The Human Factor"