Wow, yet another reminder that you can’t always judge a metal album by the cover. By looking at the artwork for Hell‘s debut Human Remains, I bet most would expect a death or thrash bonanza. Well, a mighty big ass surprise would await upon spinning this thing! This is NWOBHM style metal by a British band that was part of the 80’s new wave but unable to land a record deal, despite adoring fans and supporters like Lars Ulrich. After founding singer/guitarist Dave Halliday killed himself in 1987, it seemed Hell had run it’s course. Fear not, for long time fan, friend and mega-producer Andy Sneap (Sabbat) has come to the rescue, convincing them to reform for another shot at metallic glory. With the surviving members together again along with new vocalist Dave Bower and Mr. Sneap as a second guitarist, we finally get that long awaited debut. So how do a bunch of songs that have been mothballed since the 80’s sound in 2011? Well, despite some great moments and obvious potential, its not a complete success. Allow me to elaborate.
Hell takes the NWOBHM style of titans like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, pairs it with riffing right off the first two Mercyful Fate albums and adds some extra heaviness to the mix. Sounds like a winning formula right? It is, especially for cranky old bastards like me who grew up during that Golden Era of metal (AMG will disagree about the 80’s being a metal Pax Romana, but it was!). On tracks like “On Earth As It Is In Hell” and “Plague and Fyre”, guitarist Kev Bower and Mr. Sneap lay down some great old school influenced riffs that don’t necessarily sound dated (“On Earth” in particular having a heavy Mercyful Fate style). On “The Oppressors” they craft a swaggering, bouncing main riff that exudes coolness. During “The Devil’s Deadly Weapon” there’s some great, epic riffing that can’t be resisted (especially at 2:02 onward into the solo). In fact, every track on Human Remains has some great riffing and solo work and some truly interesting compositional ideas that get quite proggy at times.
So what’s the glitch you ask? Well, it pains me to say it, but the vocals of Dave Bower (brother of guitarist Kev) are a real hindrance. He’s clearly a gifted vocalist andÂ blessed with a diverse and unusual skill set. He can sing like King Diamond, hit stratospheric highs like Halford in his prime and can carry a tune across town without breaking a sweat. The problem is, he tries just too damn hard on most of the songs and adopts a style incorporating the worst features of Jon Oliva (Savatage), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian) and Lizzy Borden (Lizzy Borden, duh). If you can’t imagine that combo, it entails alternating between hoarse, gruff vibratos, little, shrill chirps, screams, WAY over-the-top dramatic intonations, cheesy theatrics and lunatic laughter. In essence, Mr. Bower approaches vocals like Anthony Hopkins has approached acting recently. Just listen to his ranting and general hysteria on “Blasphemy and the Master” and you’ll see what I mean. When he takes things down several notches, the songs fare better like with “Plague and Frye” and “The Quest.” Sadly, restraint is rarely the watch word and Human Remains contains the most overwrought vocal performance since Martin Walkyier’s slobbering on Sabbat‘s Dreamweaver album. Oddly enough, Walkyier was the first choice to do vocals here. Apparently Mr. Sneap likes his vocalists unhinged and unrestrained.
Another problem is the length of the songs. “Blasphemy and the Master” feels way too long at eight minutes and “The Devil’s Deadly Weapon” is even worse at ten minutes. Considering Bower’s vocal shit show, that’s simply too big a canvas to let him finger paint on. Also working against them is a tendency for the lyrics to get too glib and supercilious, thereby undercutting the dark mood they’re trying to create. Finally, the songs themselves are uneven, some rock solid, some borderline filler.
After such a long, tough road, I give Hell full credit for finally getting this material released. They’ve been through Hell and back career-wise (sorry, had to do it). While the vocals are a major love or hate proposition and its an uneven record overall, the guitar-work partially redeems things. There’s big potential here and I can see Hell crafting a real stormer next time out, providing they keep Mr. Bower on a much, much shorter leash (with muzzle). Welcome to the big time guys, glad you finally made it.