Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love, stuff that’s essential listening for students of extreme metal that you may not have ever heard of. Stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for. This week, we sail into dangerous waters indeed: Christian metal. That’s right, I am going to risk the wrath of the heathen hordes of Decibel readers AND Christians by covering Messiah’s Final Warning (Retroactive).
If there’s anything that makes your average metalhead more uncomfortable than Turbonegro and Accept’s tales of dude-on-dude action, it’s white metal. Rock ‘n roll is, after all, the devil’s music. Still, belief in JC has informed our favorite genre since its inception. Go back and listen to Black Sabbath’s “After Forever.” Ozzy does not, in fact, want to see the Pope on a rope. And, of course, Trouble and Candlemass both dealt with themes and stories taken from the Bible, even though they denied being actual Christian groups. However, there’s a difference between using biblical tales as a basis for your songs and making your belief the single focal point. Songs completely devoted to one specific faith have a tendency to alienate people who don’t share that faith, or don’t want to hear about it over screaming guitars. As a Jew myself, that’s been one of the biggest hurdles for me to listen to the stuff. And that made it pretty hard for Christian bands to find success, especially back in the early 80s when a lot of mainstream radio stations wouldn’t play overtly religious music and it was very, very easy to be misunderstood by your core base.
That’s what happened to Messiah, anyway. Formed by definite believer (and Alice Cooper fan) Charles Michael as a vehicle to talk about his faith, Messiah went through a lot of hard times and a lot of lineups. Their theatrical live show featured Michael raising up Satan and casting him down again, which was probably pretty rad, but ended up confusing (according to Michael, anyway) the crowds in the small southern clubs that they toured – including one gentleman who decided to unload his 12 gauge at Michael’s head as he left the club one evening. They recorded an EP and a single full-length, 1984’s Final Warning, before throwing in the towel because of a dispute with management that left them unable to tour and with a warehouse full of unreleased records.
Contained in that warehouse was a sound that most vinyl fetishists would kill for, an appealing combination of rawness and melody. In fact, the way they mixed together the traditional metal sounds of Judas Priest with the soaring harmonies of Blue Oyster Cult reminds me of a band with a very different message: Ghost. Instead of Hammer horror Satanism, though, they had a positive message that they genuinely believed in. Whether the listener believes or not is irrelevant; Michael’s passion comes across.
In fact, these are some of the catchiest hymns you’re ever going to hear (at least within the milieu of heavy metal). “Who’s to Blame” channels Iron Maiden, “Where Are You” calls to God and doesn’t receive an answer, “Outta Control” evokes the mock black masses that Michael performed in his Black Sabbath tribute band. “Mistaken Identity” features a menacing Cirith Ungol buzzsaw. “Final Warning” fits the slot of the requisite epic. “Keep Searching” plunders Blizzard of Ozz for its riffs, but that’s okay. And their statement of intent, “Heavenly Metal,” features an angelic chorus and some totally sweet synth drums, and it has a way of popping into your head when you least expect it.
It’s a shame they never got their shot; they actually had what it takes. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as big as the more accessible Stryper, but they probably could have developed a pretty solid fan base in the metal world. Maybe even one as big as Cirith Ungol’s! Okay, it was probably a long shot, but they definitely would have sold more records if the record had actually come out. Final Warning was rescued by Retroactive last year, and even if you don’t agree with the band’s religious beliefs (I don’t), it’s hard to deny that Messiah were touched by angels when they recorded this.