Let’s establish something right out of the box here: Helvetets Port is a bit of a strange band. Not strange in a GG Allin “I don’t know where that microphone’s been” kind of way, but strange in a number of other intents that begins with the fact that they (very willingly) look like the five strangest pilots Voltron has ever called to duty.
If Spinal Tap is the first thing you think about after soaking in that pic, that’s…well, just fine—who the hell in their right mind doesn’t love Spinal Tap? Contrary to The Tap, however, Helvetets Port is as serious as a person can be while intentionally tossing a faux-fur capelet over their shoulders. You guys remember when Bruce Dickinson very (sort of) seriously marched out on stage wearing a hawk mask, yellow yoga pants and tube socks, yes? If you don’t—or perhaps more importantly, if you do and that vision somehow does not equate with enthusiasm—then this band might not be for you.
More about “that look”: flip the pages of heavy metal history back far enough and you will enter an era when bands didn’t necessarily have to sound like glam rock in order to look like they just waltzed in from a Sunset Strip Second-hand Shoppe. Yeah, we’re talking about the 80s again. There’s a reason dusty bastards like me can’t stop talking about the de facto Golden Age: 1) We have to; it’s the law, and 2) It did, in fact, rule quite a bit, and that ruleage ruled so hard that you still can’t toss a Madball in any direction without hitting a band paying tribute to that ruling era right in the cabbage patch.
So yes, From Life to Death sounds like something lifted from an enormous bin labeled “80s Metal,” including its production, which levels the guitars back a skosh in favor of spotlighting the very good (and also fairly strange) vocals of a fellow by the name of—sure, why not—Witchfinder.
If you’re looking for an underground connect that’s perhaps a little less obscure and, because we’re a US-based ‘zine, a little closer to the Western Hemisphere, think… Well, not a lot comes to mind, to be perfectly honest. The best I can do is offer up four records that were reached for in an effort to unearth broader influences while absorbing From Life to Death: Brocas Helm’s Into Battle, Sacred Blade’s Of the Sun + Moon, Fates Warning’s Night On Bröcken, and Queensrÿche’s The Warning.
That last example requires further explanation, because From Life to Death really does not sound like The Warning on the surface. Here’s the thing about Queensrÿche’s debut full-length, though: it’s unique as hell. The Warning was weird and proggy and theatrical and dark and dystopian in 1984, and it has never really been duplicated in the 35 years since its release. The production was raw and curiously distant, but that only added to its overall eccentricity and otherworldliness. From Life to Death, while not quite as dark and clearly more interested in battle, has a similar sort of operatic drama and general sense of metaphysical uniqueness that helps set Helvetets Port apart when compared to the bulk of their contemporary peers.
More about that “interest in battle”: it’s important to underscore the Brocas Helm influence here, because there are plenty of moments throughout this record where Helvetets Port gallops with the sort of full-armored charge that would make them fitting companions to a band like Finland’s Chevalier on a really fun tour that only plays castle ruins. Opener “Stan Brinner,” “Ruled with an Iron Hand,” “Hård Mot De Hårda” (in particular), “Man-at-Arms” and “Hero of an Age” all hit with a gauntleted fist that emphasizes barreling riffs, a notably chewy bass, and some curiously infectious choruses.
Where things get (delightfully) peculiar is when the band allows things to slow down, prog out, lean more toward hard rock, or any combination of those things. The song structures and vocal patterns become more abstract and downright eerie at times, and somewhere along that path the line between the past and future manages to blur. Not at all in a “this sounds modern” sense, mind you. Despite the fact that the comprehensive journey involves stories of kings and queens and champions (including, um, the Scarlet Pimpernel), From Life to Death ends up coming across more like a story written by Robert A. Heinlein than Robert E. Howard. Iron still rules the land, but it might actually be 2149, and barbarians know how to duck laser sorcerers by squatting behind fallen meteorite debris. Or if all the album’s themes are indeed solely yoinked from the Middle Ages, one of those motherfuckers secretly nicked a crystal eye from a verboten serpent totem that enables time travel. In short, if this record were an animated short film, it would find itself sandwiched inside 1981’s Heavy Metal.
The more straightforward belters—much of which lands in the first half of the record—keep things pretty well on the straight and narrow, but the second half of the album features a few visitations from «outside this earth» that give the whole journey plenty of peculiar seasoning. Again, nothing so unusual as to require straitjackets, but hints of unconventionality that begin right around “White Diamond,” a song that sounds a bit like Slade aging in reverse from Slough Feg, and continuing with the warbling, woozy fever dream of “Die to Stay Alive.”
Then, something funny gets slipped into Dungeon Master’s mead. The title track is an eerie, d00my, operatic trip that becomes a proggy, piebald pageant after about a minute and a half, and “Orion’s Bälte” that follows is equally as eccentric. Are there fireflies in my ears? I think everything that follows might feel a little stranger because of these two songs. No… No, I’m sure everything’s fine. Even when Helvetets Port is at their weirdest—
Wait… Is this even weird? I’m starting to feel like this is all perfectly normal after so many listens. Maybe 80s’ metal is supposed to sound like it wrestled through a temporal distortion before reaching the brainpan. Maybe it’s meeee who’s panda tits warped.
Have the leads been mentioned yet? Before this very moment? The hundreds of hümptles ov cåböödles of glassy leads that are steelier than a glaive through the eyeball? No matter how disconnected this world begins to feel, the lead guitar work has a constant grounding effect. It wants us to remember that life is meant to shred just as much as it is meant to mystify. Lightning from the ground up.
And feckin hell, boys, that “Night of the Innocent” cut that closes out this affair has just enough quirk in the corners to pin Nasty Ronnie to the canvas for a ten-count. This singer might be an alien. An operatic alien opening for Diva Plavalaguna in The Fifth Element. Or maybe he was yanked from a famous Klingon opera house. Nah, he’s perfectly human. But he’s definitely on the side of the wizard lizards when they eventually take over this rotting planet, yes? Can someone confirm this? Put him in the interrogation chair? SHINE A LIGHT INTO HIS PUPILS.
Where were we.
If you’re one of those unconscionable soreheads that doesn’t care for metal that sounds ripped from the 80s, you should probably avoid this particular port. If you’re the sort who spends hours & hours digging into the underest of the underground for all manner of hidden gems, however, including modern interpretations of the precursors, and you’re looking for something a little…different, Helvetets Port is ready to deliver. From Life to Death sounds extremely 80s, but in an impressively unique manner.