You may think you know what you want, but you don’t know shit; Black Viper sees right through your facade, all the way from Norway. They are spying you perusing through AMG’s recent round of reviews, and scoffing as you check out bands with extraneous tags such as “post” or “progressive.” Why on Earth would you ever want to engage with such pretentious, slow burning affairs when Hellions of Fire offers instant gratification – i.e. the prompt melting of faces – that occurs immediately and doesn’t let up until the album ends or your sound system catches fire (whichever comes first). Indeed, while I love the newest blackened/avant garde/whatever as much as the next guy, something so purely simple and true to metal’s roots can serve as an especially effective palette cleanser, and scant few traditional / speed metal records are as potent as Hellions of Fire.
Beginning with what would have been a truly iconic acoustic opening had it been released thirty years ago, Hellions then launches into a cavalcade of vicious, technically precise speed metal riffs that immediately establishes the tone and mode of operation that defines the entirety of the record. When Black Viper decides to let ‘er rip, they really fucking rip. Arild Myren Torp’s distinct guitar style allows for blisteringly quick note progressions that make traditional, burly thrash riffs feel sluggish by comparison. It is a testament to the band’s capabilities as a unit that Hellions comes across not as an album that’s barely holding itself together, but one that is constantly careening around hairpin turns with confident control, with regular tempo fluctuations instilling the proceedings with an excellent sense of pacing. Beyond the excellent guitar work, there is not much to say for Black Viper‘s instrumental execution; the album is presented with charming efficiency and with a complete lack of fucking around.
For all its instrumental simplicity, Hellions is, in terms of songwriting, a much smarter album than Black Viper would have you believe. Each track uses the space between the second and final refrains to offer several minutes of additional verses, riffs, and solos, and the compositions in general are quite dynamic, with regular tempo changes keeping the proceedings fresh. One of the best examples of kinetic structuring lies in “Quest for Power – The Fountain of Might,” which begins with a lengthy instrumental section comprised of no less than five red herrings as the track unexpectedly shifts upward in tempo, eventually settling on a gritty, down-tempo groove. Despite their endeavors to maintain retro authenticity, BV‘s strong songwriting chops come across as engaging and progressive, much more so than the bulk of bands that recorded music in the era from which they pull inspiration.
Nearly as impressive as Hellions’ track structuring is its production. From the wailing guitar tones to the vocal reverb and prominent bass presence, this record is so carefully engineered as an accurate throwback that it could have easily fooled me into being a recently unearthed speed metal time capsule. Its authenticity doesn’t completely immunize it from flaws, as the skins sound a touch weak and fail to pop in the mix, but otherwise there is little to find fault with in Hellions’ sound. If Black Viper is guilty of any sins in album craft, though, it’s in Hellions’ length. At forty seven minutes the album isn’t exactly enormous, but it feels a bit bloated, as so much music in this style is tough for me to digest in one go, even when filtered through dynamic songwriting. A few of the choruses also fail to make much of an impression, though some, such as the power metal-tinged refrain of “Freedom’s Reign,” are quite memorable.
Ultimately, Hellions of Fire‘s handful of flaws are borderline negligible; the only thing barring the record from receiving a higher score, aside from a mild case of bloat and a couple of forgettable choruses, is a lack of anything that sounds truly new. Yet with such well thought out genre worship and song construction, the absence of innovation isn’t missed in the slightest when approaching the record without active criticism. With Hellions, Black Viper has provided us with one of the better speed metal albums in recent years, and has proven that throwback metal can still be just as dynamic and exhilarating as its modern offshoots. If painstakingly crafted 80’s worship is something that warms the cockles of your cold, dead, nostalgic heart, this one is unmissable.