On the fateful day Mark “the Shark” Shelton was begotten, the planets and stars aligned and the Prime Mover proclaimed him the Eternal Champion of Trve Metal and Ass-tastic Productions. Burdened thusly by the crushing weight of metallic destiny, young Mark immediately set about the Herculean task of putting Kansas on the map for trveness. Founding the now venerable Manilla Road in the late 70s, he’s been churning out epical, olde timey metal ever since. The band’s sound always had one boot in the 70s prog rock scene with the other in early metal (and I mean way early, like Iron Butterfly), and though the results have been uneven over the decades, much respect is owed the man. Hellwell is his solo project with sometimes Manilla contributor E.C. Hellwell, and though intended to allow him a chance to explore styles outside his main act, 2012s Beyond the Boundaries of Sin was very much a Manilla Road album by another name, and a great one at that. Follow up Behind the Demon’s Eyes sees more of the Manilla crew joining the fun with the addition of Randy Foxe on drums, and once again the music follows a Road well-traveled. But can even the Chosen One catch greased black lightning in a bottle twice?
That’s a complicated question, as the band catches just about everything imaginable in the ginormous inspirational mosquito net they set up during the writing of this helter skelter piece of psychotropia. With a mere six songs spanning a shocking 52 minutes, restraint is as alien to the band as modern recording technology. Opener “Lightwave” rips the aural band-aid off with choppy, herky-jerky drumming and overwhelming keyboard abuse as Mr. Shelton provides some out of character death metal vocals. The music is more chaotic than their last album and while the similarities to Manilla Road are ever present, this is like them on angel dust and hobo wine – loopy and berserk, with relentless carnival keyboards and disorienting stop-start drumming. “Necromantio” ups the freak factor and throws in a long free-form guitar jam that takes up about half the song. And let me tell you, it’s just about the jammiest jam that ever jammed. The whole thing is an awkward soupy mess but it’s hard to dislike based on exuberance and excess alone.
The album high point is the 16-minute mega-bomb of “To Serve Man,” which uses the classic Twilight Zone concept of aliens turning mankind into cattle as an excuse to commit the most blatant metal overkill of our time. So over-the-top it is that the embedded 3-minute church organ solo isn’t even the most outrageous portion. This too includes extended segments of zany guitar jammage and by the end you’ll be as stupefied as a United Air passenger who just got beaten with the Customer Accommodation Stick.
Hellwell can’t be faulted for trying to craft interesting, unusual music, but the tighter, more accessible writing from the last album has been jettisoned completely in favor of a more fluid, stream of consciousness style. This coupled with their unswerving determination to cram so much into every second can prove overwhelming. Even the shorter songs like “Lightwave” and “It’s Alive” feel way longer than they are because so much is coming at you the whole time. It’s exhausting and by album’s end you feel like you ran a marathon wearing plate armor.
As always with Hellwell and Manilla Road, the production is godawful. The whole sound is extremely garage bandish, tinny, cluttered and sloppy. Some will find it endearingly old school, but it’s really just a pain in the ass and makes the already chaotic music sound twice as loony and amateurish. Worse still, the keyboards are way too prominent, often drowning out the guitar.
Aside from production issues, the album has two potential negatives working against it. Mark Shelton is the epitome of a love or hate vocalist and E.C. Hellwell is the most aggressive, unstoppable keyboardist since the Phantom of the Opera1. When you put these two in the same band, things get…interesting. Shelton employs his trademark mega-nasal whingeing/singing along with some respectable death croaks, and while I’ve grown used to his unorthodox style, he’s tough to love sometimes. Mr. Hellwell on the other hand is a study in excess, and while the promotional material say this is less keyboard dominated than the last album, that’s highly debatable. The man essentially rams his organ up your ear canals and does things considered illegal in 40 states and the island republic of Guam. There are compositional lines one should never overstep, and he’s a habitual line stepper for whom the mantra “less is more” is forever obscured.
Behind the Demon’s Eyes was one of the toughest albums I’ve had to rate during my AMG tenure. It does so many things wrong, but you have to admire the sheer scope and insanity of it all, and in the end it’s more fun than frazzling. This is the kind of album words can’t do justice and you have to hear it for yourself. You owe that much to the Eternal Champion.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: High Roller Records
Websites: Too kvlt for interwebz
Releases Worldwide: April 14th, 2017