Hellwell // Beyond the Boundaries of Sin
Rating: 4.5/5.0 — A Manilla Road less traveled…
Label: Shadow Kingdom Records
Websites: Too TRVE for the interwebs
Release Dates: Out now!
No name has more cache in the “true metal” underground than Mark “The Shark” Shelton. As founder, guitarist and vocalist for the relentless champions of kvlt, Manilla Road, Mark’s been churning out odes to steel, castles and Cthulhu since 1979. He’s watched time and trends come and go and never felt the need to change or adapt the proto-metal style he helped pioneer. Every Manilla Road album is an eternal tribute to early metal sensibilities and each is a testament to craptastic production jobs and Mark’s one-of-a-kind nasally vocals. I’ve always supported the band, but I’m the first to admit, their material has been hit or miss. Their last release, Playground of the Damned, was a big miss and left me quite disappointed. When I heard Mr. Shelton joined a project called Hellwell with Manilla Road bassist-turned-keyboard-specialist E.C. Hellwell, I was unsure what to expect, but was eager to hear it. Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is Hellwell‘s debut, but more importantly, it’s the Manilla Road album I was hoping for but didn’t get last time around (hell, it’s one of the crowning moments of the entire style). This beast has all the old school charm, excess and bombast of Manilla Road and the mighty Cirith Ungol and better still, it captures Manilla Road at its peak and incorporates tons of dramatic, over-the-top 70s keyboards and hammond organ. The result is something comfortably familiar, but also new and exciting. In short, it’s a fucking wonderful surprise for an old-timer like the Steel Druhm!!
Things open weirdly with “The Strange Case of Doctor Henry Howard Holmes,” which features some delightfully macabre carnival sideshow organ music. It’s lovingly ominous and made me think of the old movie, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Once the guitar and organ fully kick in, it’s quickly apparent just how prominent the organ’s place in the sound is and it usually dominates the guitar. Still, it works and the song is a meaty metal number with a great interplay between riff and organ. By the time Mr. Shelton’s distinctively whiney vocals join the fray, it’s a swinging lunatic party. It’s also loaded with hooks aplenty courtesy of the huge keys, the excellent vocal choices and a vintage metal vibe that hangs so thick, its almost cloying. “Eaters of the Dead” is more direct and aggressive and almost has a black metal delivery at times. It has a lot of overpowering organ (that sounds weird) and old school American metal riffing that reminds me of early Obsession or Omen. The segment beginning at 3:38 has a simple, but very effective riff/organ interplay that works particularly well with Shelton’s odd vocals. Great stuff!
While both “Keeper of the Devil’s Inn” and “Deadly Nightshade” are very good, highly enjoyable numbers, they essentially serve as stepping-stones to the epic trilogy that makes up the album’s monstrous backend. Kicking off with “Tomb of the Unnamed One,” Hellwell really step up their already rock-solid game and things expand into a more sweeping, epic construct. Big, aggressive riffing, even bigger organ swells and more bombast than any Rhapsody of Whatever album; these boys lay it on extra thick here! The chorus is a winner, the vibe is great and it rains old school metal on you like a possessed junkyard crane from 1955. “The Heart of Ahriman” is even better, with more organ noodling than the entire Iron Butterfly catalogue and even better vocals. Another big chorus and more sensational guitar/organ face-offs make the song hum and crackle with energy and power.
Things come to a tentacled head with the thirteen minute closer “End of Days.” With constantly shifting tempos, Middle Eastern influences and eerie, chanting vocals, Hellwell runs you through the paces from doom to quasi-thrash and even manage to invoke a “Stargazer” feeling during much of the song. Cram in plenty of “pure metal” guitar solos, a variety of strange vocal styles by Shelton (some bordering on death vox) and you have a big, gnarly mess o’ metal to wade through. Oddly, despite the epic length, the song flies by and never gets bogged down or feels bloated. While I swear I know the riff at 3:24 from somewhere, I can’t place it and I really dig it.
As refreshing and enjoyable as Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is, my fanboyism doesn’t blind me to the flaws. E.C. Hellwell’s organ work is huge part of the charm here and frequently gives the material a haunted church/horror movie soundtrack effect which is quite awesome. However, the organ is placed SO high in the mix, most of the time it boxes out the guitar and relegates Shelton’s interesting playing to the backseat. A more equal division of labor would’ve benefitted the overall sound significantly. Speaking of Shelton’s guitar work, it’s great as always, but the tone is way too tinny and weak (an ongoing issue for Manilla Road). If it had more of fat, thick edge, the impact on the heaviness would be HUGE.
Naturally, no review of Manilla Road or a Manilla Road offshoot band would be complete without bashing the slipshod, balky production. By now its very obvious that Shelton loves his metal underproduced and sloppy sounding, since ever single release has suffered that fate. Here, the mix is tinny, fragile and far too soupy and muddled to fully serve the high quality material. However, as Shelton-involved productions go, this isn’t one of the worst and it’s at least serviceable. Sure, the organs drown out the guitar and sure the guitar sounds weak, but I suppose that makes it feel more “old timey” and “true.” Whatever, I’m just happy to have the album.
So let’s sum up! Manilla Road is a classic band. Their last outing was iffy. Hellwell arrives from beyond to correct that with an amazing platter of olden-style metal. If you like Shelton’s past works, Cirith Ungol or Slough Feg, this is a total must hear. If you’re in the mood for some top-notch, pre-NWOBHM, melodic metal, throw this squid in the boat. This is bound to make my “best of” list for 2012 so support quality metal and check this out! Also, remember to vote Cthulhu in 2012. Why vote for a lesser evil?