By my extensive calculations and careful application of Steel Druhm’s Theory of Genre Longevity (Pat. Pending), retro thrash is in the fourteenth minute of its fame window. As the clock runs down, all sorts of mediocore stuff gets jammed through the pipeline. That translates into roughly one good album for every five released. Those are some long odds facing retro thrash wannabe’s and there’s no reason to sugarcoat it. It’s a tough world and most of these acts will soon be abandoned alongside the metal highway to rust and decrepify. That brings us to HeXen‘s second album, Being and Nothingness. HeXen play a melodic version of 80s thrash, similar to Exodus during their Fabulous Disaster and Impact is Imminent era. Unlike most thrash band’s however, HeXen makes an effort at appearing somewhat progressive, and they enjoy showing off their technical abilities every chance they get. This means cramming tons of noodly guitar work and showboatery into each and every song. Their 2008’s debut State of Insurgency showed promise, had some decent material and impressive playing, but was brought way down by awful vocals and amateurish writing. After four years in which to refine their approach, Being and Nothingness shows they still have chops to spare. Unfortunately, they still have an annoying vocalist as well. Making matters worse, they failed to beef up their song writing acumen, and this is one of those albums that bounces off my steely cranium like a tennis ball, leaving nothing behind except a slightly annoying red mark.
After a decent instrumental opener, things take a turn for the mundane with “Grave New World.” It’s a particularly generic thrash anthem with riffs so stale, you’ll swear they were left over from the Nixon Administration. When Andre Hartoonian’s vocals come in, things really take a dive. His utterly nondescript thrash barks are boring and irritating in equal measures and he does nothing to make the songs work. “Defcon Rising” is better and has a variety of interesting riffing and nice solos, but it’s still submarined by the vocals and laissez faire approach to song construction. The rest of Being and Nothingness is composed of average to below average efforts at technical thrash. Tracks like “Private Hell,” “Walk as Many, Stand as One” and “Stream of Unconsciousness” all fail to register on my carefully calibrated ThrashOStat and essentially bore me to beers. The WAY overlong “Nocture” is fourteen minutes of music with only about four being worthwhile. Only “The Nescient” rises to the level of acceptable thrash (but still doesn’t inspire an urge to ever hear it again).
What makes HeXen such a frustrating listen is the obvious talent they possess. This is one tight unit and Ronny Dorian and Artak Tavaratsyan can play the living daylights out of their axes, and do so at the drop of a dime. Though they seem to write a shocking amount of basic and uninteresting thrash riffs, they pepper every song with wicked solos and generally well done harmonies. This results in bad songs with great moments of musicianship. Another problem is how low-key their style of thrash is. It’s sort of fast, but not too fast. It’s sort of heavy, but not too heavy. Basically, HeXen is the Wonder Bread™ of retro thrash. Despite my dislike of their recording output to date, I’ll be the first to admit, if they ever figure out how to team their musical talents with high level writing, they’ll be a sick beast (assuming they get a new vocalist).
Another negative for Being and Nothingness is the production. The guitar tone is very underwhelming and without enough edge for a thrash album. With thrash, I need to be overwhelmed, or at least whelmed! Rather than going for a raw and nasty sound, things are polished and clean and I have no idea why. Also, the dreadful vocals are too far out front. If you don’t have a good vocalist, why would you put them way out front? These kinds of questions keep Steel Druhm up at night.
So, without further sugar-coating, HeXen is a band firmly ensconced in the third tier of the retro thrash pyramid. After two albums, I don’t see them escaping to a better zip code, despite their indisputable technical skills. Sadly, in a genre with a shelf life that’s rapidly burning down to entropy, there isn’t much time for third tier acts. Unless technical know-how means more to you than memorable songs, file under “whatevs.”