I can be a real dick.
No doubt about it, I can be one serious dick sometimes, especially when one of my pet peeves causes me to immediately write off bands. First there is the prepositional phrase band name. It might be that it appears overly pretentious and grasping for artistic merit, or it might be that tons of shitty ‘core acts ruined the technique. (With Dead Hands Rising? With Honor? With Passion? Take off.) Either way, it irks my bones. Another peeve is an artist or band limiting the vehicles by which their music can be heard. I may praise Blut Aus Nord’s What Once Was series for its musical quality, but a CD or non-bootleg digital version would be great in addition to the vinyl. And cassettes? Many of you know how I feel about those useless throwbacks.
Point is, even a person such as myself who tries his damnedest to be objective about the music he critiques can fall prey to plenty of artistic prejudice. So last year, when I saw some of my crewmates raving about a new cassette from a band named Hell, I shrugged it off as gimmickry. This was a mistake; a grave mistake.
Luckily, a digital promo for an upcoming vinyl release of the previously cassette-only Hell III gave me a chance to amend my error, and curiosity demanded that I give it a spin. (The hilarity of receiving a digital promo for a vinyl release is a subject for another day…) What resulted was pure joy for my ears, and the type of revelatory journey that so many bands work brutally hard to attain, only to come up short. On paper there is nothing about Hell’s music that sets it apart from other contemporary bands – the mix of sprawling doom, black metal, sludge, drone, and ambient music is pretty damned overdone these days – but make no mistake about it: this is special.
Hell III, which you might surmise is this Salem, Oregon project’s third proper full length, consists of merely two tracks combining for over 37 minutes of lush, layered, lo-fi, and impeccably constructed music. The first of these, “Mourn,” shifts from five minutes of eerie-but-serene clean guitar to a black metal passage that mirrors some of the clean melodies with tremolo riffs, while some great harsh vocals bring the rage. The song gradually morphs into doomier material, which eventually becomes some of the heaviest (HEAVIEST) matter known to man, only to crumble over itself whilst it descends and falls into the abyss of an extended ambient section. What really stands out about “Mourn” – other than the oh-so-natural way it progresses – is a particular sound that emerges during this ambient section. It might be a buried horn making a call from the depths, but in truth it doesn’t sound like an instrument, it sounds alive. The music delves so deep as to awake this unseen creature, and its voice has been heard again. The voice continues even when the clean guitars return to give the song a proper bookending, offering more of a resolution than most epic tracks of this ilk can even dream of.
The album’s second track, “Decedere,” offers a similarly sprawling, dynamic construction as the first, but builds it with somewhat differing tools. The opening clean guitar passage feels familiar, but when the heavy hits it isn’t tremolo-drenched black metal, but rather evocative doom that comes in; evocative doom with some incredibly well-utilized operatic female vocals. As with the opener, the shifts are gradual and organic, with black metal tones slowly creeping in as the doom shifts to harder-edged sludge and eventually to another ambient, droning section. Where “Decedere” differs, however, is in how the heavy emerges like a beast from the ambience. It isn’t until after a long period of silence – the length of which would be my only complaint about the album – that Hell offers the resolution of more haunting clean guitar melodies.
Hell’s compositional talents and sense of flow certainly help make this album the grandiose victory that it is, but the band’s nature has as much to do with the win as anything. There is a beautiful filth at work here, one that would be ruined through refinement or clinical precision. There needs to be moments on Hell III that are ever-so-slightly out of tune, and there needs to be passages that are played less than perfectly. It makes the band feel incredibly human, a wondrous dichotomy when joined with the otherworldly feel of the songs themselves.
I hope that lauding praise at this album makes up for the sin I originally committed. Hell III still won’t be available on CD, but it is for sale digitally on Bandcamp, and that limited run of vinyl will soon be released. The unrefined nature of this music – along with that limited release – will undoubtedly continue to give this Hell a smaller audience than their talents deserve, but for the right listener it hardly gets better than this. Masterful stuff, and absolutely singular in its vision and execution.