Formative years (1980–1984)
Then based in San Francisco, Kurdt Vanderhoof formed the band in 1980 with various musicians. This era included a brief audition period with future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. The three-song, instrumental Red Skies demo appeared in 1981, featuring Vanderhoof, guitarist Rick Condrin, bassist Steve Hott, and drummer Aaron Zimpel.
Vanderhoof returned to his hometown of Aberdeen in 1981 and began the new group Shrapnel with Craig Wells, Duke Erickson, drummer Tom Weber, and vocalist Mike Murphy. Murphy departed before their next demo, which was recorded without vocals, and Weber departed shortly thereafter. The enlistment of Kirk Arrington and David Wayne completed the group's classic lineup. They released the demo Four Hymns and spent following years touring and accruing material, readopting the Metal Church moniker in 1983. The song "Death Wish" is featured on the compilation album Northwest Metalfest.
First two records and commercial success (1984–1988)
In 1984, they released their self-titled debut album, which included three songs from the Four Hymns demo and a cover of Deep Purple's "Highway Star". They sold 70,000 copies of the album independently before signing to Elektra. According to Wayne, Ulrich and Metallica bandmate James Hetfield urged Elektra to sign the band before another label did.
By the time Metal Church released their second studio album, The Dark, in 1986, they were touring with high-profile acts like Metallica. The Dark was a commercial success, helped by the fact that the band's first music video, "Watch the Children Pray", received frequent airplay on MTV. As a result, the album managed to enter the Billboard 200, and saw Metal Church perform at clubs, arenas and theaters with the likes of King Diamond, Celtic Frost, Testament, Overkill and the Big Four of thrash metal (Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax).
Shortly after the album's release, however, they were plagued by lineup changes: Vanderhoof ceased performing with the group in 1986, to be replaced briefly by Mark Baker and more extensively by John Marshall. Vanderhoof nonetheless continued to work with the group in composing thereafter, co-writing much of their subsequent material. Wayne also departed shortly thereafter and was replaced by former Heretic singer Mike Howe. Wayne teamed up with the remaining members of Heretic to form Reverend.
Further albums and first breakup (1989–1996)
With Howe and Marshall, Metal Church released their third studio album, Blessing in Disguise, in 1989. Critics responded favorably, including some assertions that the record was the group's strongest effort. Blessing in Disguise was even more successful than its predecessors, peaking at number 75 on the Billboard 200; this was Metal Church's highest chart position, until it was surpassed 27 years later by XI. Despite touring well behind the album throughout 1989 and 1990 (with bands such as Metallica, W.A.S.P., Accept, Fates Warning, Saxon, Celtic Frost and Meliah Rage), they were dropped from Elektra.
Metal Church released its fourth studio album, The Human Factor, on Epic Records in 1991. Critics applauded the group for transitioning to a major label and successfully retaining the vitality of their sound, while also releasing a record with conceptual accessibility beyond the heavy metal genre. Unlike their previous two albums, however, The Human Factor failed to chart on the Billboard 200.
The band followed with their fifth studio album, 1993's Hanging in the Balance on Mercury Records. After touring almost non-stop in support of that album for about two years, Metal Church officially disbanded in 1996, citing management problems and poor record sales, as well as guitarist Craig Wells' new found faith in Christianity, as factors.
Reunion of classic lineup and Masterpeace (1998–2001)
Founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof
began performing with the group for the first time in 12 years for their 1998 reformation.
The members of Metal Church began compiling their first live album in 1998, Live, which featured songs from their first two records performed by their classic lineup. During the production of Live, Wayne, Vanderhoof, Wells, Arrington, and Erickson decided to reform the band and began work on a new studio album. Wells was forced to depart the band due to familial obligations, however, and was replaced by the returning Marshall. The live album Live in Japan (recorded on the band's 1995 Japanese tour) was also released in 1998, only in Japan.
The resulting album, Masterpeace, was released in 1999 on Nuclear Blast Records. Critics responded positively, hailing it as a focused product that increased the energy over previous releases, despite it ultimately failing to break new ground. Arrington and Erickson were unable to tour behind the record, so the band enlisted members of Vanderhoof's side projects, bassist Brian Lake and drummer Jeff Wade, for live performances later that year.
Wayne expressed regret regarding the record, which influenced his musical output that followed. He again departed in 2001 due to personal and creative differences, forming the group
Wayne with Wells and releasing the curiously titled debut album Metal Church thereafter. Vanderhoof objected to the album's name and cover art; according to Wayne, the purpose of the album's name was to alert the audience of his involvement. Erickson and Marshall also ceased involvement with Metal Church after Wayne's departure.
Munroe-led lineup, Wayne's death, and second breakup (2004–2009)
Vanderhoof's eponymous band released A Blur in Time in 2002, and he began working on new material for Metal Church's next album thereafter. In 2004, he and Arrington recruited singer Ronny Munroe, ex-Malice guitarist Jay Reynolds, and bassist Steve Unger to form a new lineup of Metal Church. They released the band's seventh studio album later that year, The Weight of the World. Critics generally reacted to the record with a lukewarm response, recognizing its accomplishments while noting its lack of consistency and innovation.
On May 10, 2005, David Wayne died of complications from injuries sustained in a car accident that occurred months before. He was 47 years old.
In 2006, Arrington left the band due to health complications with diabetes. His replacement was Jeff Plate, who previously worked with Savatage, Chris Caffery and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Later that year, the band released their eighth studio album, A Light in the Dark, which featured a re-recording of "Watch the Children Pray" as a tribute to Wayne. Vanderhoof said that the tribute was a way of showing fans that he harbored no ill will towards Wayne despite the contentious situation that existed between them before Wayne's death.
Reynolds left the group in 2008 and was replaced by Rick Van Zandt. The band's ninth studio album, This Present Wasteland, followed in 2008, which was hailed generally as an effective release consistent with their previous material. After subsequent touring, the band took a hiatus from performing due to Vanderhoof's back problems. They nonetheless continued studio work, while Munroe and Vanderhoof also completed the former's solo album.
After Vanderhoof's health improved, they returned to performing and composing new material. On July 7, 2009, however, the group announced unexpectedly that they were disbanding following a final performance at Rocklahoma two days later, cancelling numerous further live dates. They cited industry frustrations as a major factor influencing the decision. Several former members remained musically active, including Munroe and Vanderhoof in Presto Ballet and Plate in Machines of Grace.
Second reformation and Generation Nothing (2012–2013)
In October 2012, the band announced resumption of activity around a lineup featuring Vanderhoof, Munroe, Unger, Reynolds (soon replaced by Van Zandt), and Plate. Their first performances came the following January during the 70,000 Tons of Metal event, a heavy metal cruise. During one of these two shows, the band performed their debut album, Metal Church, in its entirety. Shortly thereafter, Vanderhoof told Music Life Radio that Metal Church had been working on a new album. In order to promote their tenth studio album, the band played festivals in the summer of 2013. The album, Generation Nothing, was released in October.
Reunion with Mike Howe (2014–present)
Munroe left the band in September 2014 to "pursue other interests". The band announced its plans to continue nonetheless. On April 30, 2015, Metal Church announced on their Facebook page that former singer Mike Howe had rejoined the band, some 20 years after first leaving the band.
Howe commented on his return: "Kurdt Vanderhoof got ahold of me in August of 2014, and he proposed [me] coming back to the band. He said Ronny [Munroe] left the band and he didn't really wanna carry on with Metal Church unless maybe I would consider coming back. So I said, 'Well, I don't know. I'm open to it. But let's see what kind of music we can come up with.' So Kurdt went back to the studio and started writing songs in the vein of 'Hanging In The Balance', where we left off twenty years ago, and he sent them to me over the Internet. And I was, like, 'Damn! The guy still has it and he's doing great work.' So he sent me another batch, and that batch was just as good [as], if not better than, the other. So, from there, I said, ‘Well, I can’t say no to this. And let's just see how it goes.' And we started writing lyrics and getting together, and it's morphed into being back in Aberdeen in the studio making the new Metal Church record."
The end result was their eleventh studio album, XI, which was released on March 25, 2016, and is Metal Church's first album with Howe on vocals since 1993's Hanging in the Balance. XI received positive reviews from critics, and was Metal Church's first album 27 years (since Blessing in Disguise) to enter the Billboard 200; it peaked at number 57, making it the band's highest chart position in their career. On the album's supporting tour, guitarist Rick Van Zandt had to go in for emergency eye surgery to repair a detached retina, and was temporarily replaced by former Firewolfe guitarist Paul Kleff, and Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery. The band co-headlined a West Coast North American tour with Armored Saint in June 2016, and along with Amon Amarth, Suicidal Tendencies and Butcher Babies, they supported Megadeth on the latter's Dystopia tour in September–October 2016.
When asked in October 2016 if he intended write another album with Metal Church, Howe stated, "We have every intention of doing that and that's what it's all about. If you're not putting on new music, then it's time to go away for me. In Metal Church... it's always been like a two-year cycle band, but we put our album out this year in March. So our album is actually only being out for six months. But we have plans on this fall getting back to writing and try to put something out next year. We're also looking at some dates for the spring possibly back in the States and maybe back over here. But our drummer Jeff, he's also on the TSO. He leaves from the end of October through December. So we might take that time to start writing new record."
Metal Church released a live album on April 28, 2017, titled Classic Live, which was recorded on the 2016 XI tour. This is the band's first live album since 1998's Live in Japan, and their first live album with Howe on vocals.
On March 21, 2017, drummer Jeff Plate announced his departure from Metal Church. As the result of his departure, the band withdrew from a U.S. tour with Alter Bridge and In Flames, scheduled to take place in May 2017. Plate was replaced by former W.A.S.P. drummer Stet Howland.
In a May 2017 interview, Vanderhoof stated that Metal Church had begun writing and demoing their next album, which would be tentatively due in early 2018.
On October 1, 2018, Metal Church teased an audio sample of a song from their twelfth studio album. The album, Damned If You Do, was announced shortly after and it was released on December 7, 2018. In support of Damned If You Do, Metal Church co-headlined a North American tour with Doro in April–May 2019.
On October 9, 2018, Metal Church was confirmed – alongside Anthrax, Testament, Corrosion of Conformity, Armored Saint, DevilDriver, John 5 and Doro – as being among the first batch of bands joining Megadeth's first-ever Megacruise in October 2019.
In a July 2019 interview with Italy's Metalforce, Howe said that Metal Church will likely begin writing new material in 2020.