A childhood spent over-indulging in the royal bombast of the King (Diamond) and Queen has left me with a long-lasting love of the theatrical; years of love for prog-rock have given me a liking for (almost all) things symphonic. (The majority of symphonic black metal bands can still take a hike, as far as I’m concerned.) And that same childhood and those same years spent under the spell of Iron Maiden and Saxon and the further tutelage of Lars Ulrich’s tireless revisiting of ’79 left me with a deep-seated love for the wide world of NWOBHM. So… a pompous, bombastic, theatrical, symphonic NWOBHM band?
Hell certainly took its own sweet time getting here – that much is certain. Founded in 1982, the band managed four demos and one single in its original incarnation. A mid-80s record deal with the Belgian label Mausoleum fell through when the label itself collapsed, and disillusioned guitarist Kev Bower subsequently quit the band and the biz. His replacement didn’t work out, and Hell shut down in 1986, seemingly forever overlooked and underappreciated. Following the demise of his band, lead vocalist / guitarist Dave Halliday tragically committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning – and it appeared, for all the obvious reasons, that Hell had frozen forever.
But it turns out that they weren’t entirely forgotten. Before his time as guitarist in seminal British thrash outfit Sabbat – and well before his turn as one of the most successful producers in modern metal – Andy Sneap was a young fan of Hell’s guitar-driven Christian-bashing melodrama. (Halliday allegedly taught Sneap to play guitar.) Pairing up with the remaining three original members (Bower, bassist Tony Speakman and drummer Tim Bowler), Sneap put Hell back on Earth, joining up as second guitarist and initially roping in legendary vocalist Martin Walkyier (Sabbat / ex-Skyclad). But Walkyier departed before recording commenced – and the new voice of Hell was found in Bower’s younger brother, David, an actor whose experience on stage and screen undoubtedly helped earn his place in this uber-theatrical outfit. With Hell’s ranks thus filled, a nearly three-decade-old band now brings us their debut album, almost twenty-five years after all was seemingly lost.
So, not unlike this review, the road to Hell took a long time to lead somewhere, through many twists and turns, but all’s well that ends well, and Human Remains is definitely worth the wait. Between Kev Bower’s speedy riffing, the expected pristine Sneap production and David Bower’s dramatics (at times, a spot-on channeling of Halliday), Human Remains is a riff-fest positively dripping with pomp and trad-metal glory. Hell’s arrangements were always complex, filled to bursting with riff after riff after symphonic interlude after spoken-word intro – Hell isn’t exactly a progressive band, but in composition as in life, they do take some sideways steps to get where they’re going, arriving at the right place often through an unorthodox approach. Each of these songs is a hold-over from the Halliday days, and though they’re clearly rooted in the time and movement that spawned them, on these re-recordings, there’s a modernity that belies the band’s age and origin – Sneap’s production is the most obvious factor anchoring the band in the now, but Hell c. 2011 is more than a bunch of old farts reliving their long-gone close-calls at glory: Human Remains is a look backwards by nature, of course, but it still holds up as current, even as it’s clearly indebted to 1985. Lead single “On Earth As It Is In Hell” follows the expected orchestral intro and establishes the band’s formula and quality early on, but it’s later tracks like “Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us” and “Let Battle Commence” that hold up most over multiple listens – the former is easily the band’s best tune. “Plague And Fyre” details London’s battles with both titular afflictions, in perfectly ripping metallic fashion, whilst “Blasphemy And The Master” slinks through a keyboard-driven intro before settling into a chug-heavy groove split by moments of an almost-doomy symphonic chanting. Human Remains is nothing if not epic in scope and execution…
Though Hell’s instrumental base is stellar and their songs well-crafted, if oddly so, the vocals remain the band’s most distinct and most divisive element – that factor that will forever split the masses for or against Hell. David Bower imbues his dynamic mid-range clean tone with the occasional guttural scream, but largely, he utilizes a nearly comically theatrical voice that certain types of metal fans will likely find off-putting. In Bower’s defense, Halliday’s vocals were equally unusual, often melodramatic, although not quite so much so as Bower’s. Like the songs they complete, the vocals are atypical and tread upon the line of silliness, and yet, like those songs, they work brilliantly in their own way. As with the riffing, the melodies often twist in unexpected manners, usually to fit the equally theatrical lyrics. In turn, those lyrics are bulky, wordy and given to strange pacing, but only rarely so much so that they become unwieldy. (“MacBeth” being the prime example of a literary ambition gone a step too far – an otherwise-decent track stifled beneath stiff Shakespearean references.) On paper, the mix of pseudo-Gothic poetry and pseudo-progressive songcraft shouldn’t work, but on record, Human Remains succeeds far more often than it doesn’t. On another crowd-splitting front, the album is lengthy, and the pomp can be overwhelming, especially so to those not predisposed to such overkill. But given that it took Hell two-and-a-half decades to make this record, I’m certainly willing to allow them a chance to spit forth as many tunes as possible, in whatever silly-but-serious manner they so desire, especially when each of those tunes is as good as these.
Collectors and old-school metalheads should also note that there is a two-disc version of Human Remains available: The second disc contains the original Halliday-era recordings of each song on the first disc, in the same running order. Being a collector myself, and since my promo copy didn’t include the second disc, I purchased the expanded set. (That in itself is further testament to the quality of Hell’s re-recordings.) These earlier recordings are certainly dated and mostly only interesting to NWOBHM-ophiles and historians (like me), but there is a certain youthful energy and passion that shows through. If you’re interested in finding out why Hell should have mattered back then, this disc is your answer, but if you’re more concerned with how Hell rocks right now, then Disc One is sufficient. As much as I enjoyed digging through Hell’s history, I find that these updated versions are those to which I return – with all respect to Dave Halliday and his initial offerings, Hell’s fire and Halliday’s vision both benefit greatly from post-millennium sheen and expanded production values.
All in all, as one disc or two, Human Remains is a grand and welcome return for a band that most of us were unaware had ever existed at all, and a brilliantly pompous bit of symphonic trad-metal that falls somewhere between Raven and King Diamond with a dash of Cradle Of Filth‘s synth-violins-and-poetry Gothic tendencies. This one’s not for everyone, but those who like it will likely love it. Absolutely over-wrought, but utterly charming in its excess, Human Remains is a winner, and Hell, my friends: I predict that I shall see you again on my year-end list.