For today’s lesson, we’ll have to travel back in time to the years 1-4 BTH (Before the Hol) or what is more commonly known as ’80-’84. I recently confessed my love for olde things and today we’ll expand upon that theme. I often find myself thinking that all of the cool music was either written shortly before or shortly after I was born, and the olde timers among you will probably agree with this sentiment. As my musical tastes expand, there’s still something about early ’80s metal that has me tethered like the umbilical cord that I sported back then. I’ve found that perhaps its greatest use is for rolling down the windows, cranking the stereo, and driving throughout the land while blasting its glory. Mania is the third album from San Francisco’s Hell Fire, and it firmly plants its flag in the aforementioned chronological sweet zone. So, after giving it the requisite close analysis, I jump into my trusty steed to give it the trve test.
Playing an impassioned form of heavy/speed metal, Hell Fire could be described as a glorious combination of Maiden, Kill ’em All Metallica, and a bit of Dio-era Sabbath. So, essentially, they attempt to cover almost everything great about metal in the early eighties. Guitarists Tony Campos and Jake Nunn have PhD’s in ’80s guitar, it seems, studying at the altars of Murray and Smith, Iommi, and even the ascended god Randy Rhoads. They’re really that good. Nunn also handles vocal duties, and while he sings cleanly a few times, he spends most of his time in Dio/Cornell gravel-in-your-throat territory. Founder and bassist Herman Bandala is equally able to channel Cliff Burton’s distorted heft and Steve Harris’ galloping rhythms, and while his bass can be heard throughout, he throws in some great little solos for good measure. Mike Smith mans the drums, and his rhythms and fills immediately brought Nicko McBrain to mind.
All of these performances are fantastic for the most part, and this is made apparent immediately. Mania opens with “Warpath” which is simply one of the greatest heavy/speed metal songs I’ve ever heard. I nearly break my steering wheel bashing along with Smith on this one. Burton returns from the dead to enter Bandala’s body and opens the embedded title track with a fuzzy, distorted, and wah-ed bass solo before the guitars set out with a mid-paced, but expertly crafted riff. At this point in the test I’m driving along the Puget Sound, and I see some waterfowl bobbing their heads and I have to assume it’s because the riff is that good. “Born to Burn” and “Lashing Out” dial up the speed into thrash territory, while “Knights of the Holy” and “Transcending Evil” display the band’s capacity for the epic, with the latter including a finger picked clean intro, phenomenal singing, emotive guitar solo, and a transition into kickass traditional metal. They even delve into Thin Lizzy-style hard rock on “The Dreamer,” and it works like a charm.
There’s one issue I find with Mania, and while it’s doesn’t really take away from how great the songs are, it does keep the album from soaring into true greatness. Nunn’s vocals are great and suit the music really well, but when you’re slinging gravel like Dio and Cornell, you better make sure you brought enough gravel. While he certainly gets an “A” for effort, at times his delivery is strained, and some parts are simply too high for him. “Knights of the Holy” is an Iron Maiden-esque epic, and while 95% of it kills, the strained vocals really start to distract from the feelings of grandeur the song is going for. I was able to get around this as the album has a nice live feel to it, and I simply imagined that I was at a concert where the vocals wouldn’t be perfect anyway. Besides this minor issue, there’s some true greatness here, with “Warpath,” “Born to Burn,” “Transcending Evil,” “Masochist,” and the title track being especially tasty.
As I drive along the waterfront, blasting Mania and taking in the ferry boats, trains, birds, and the snow-capped Olympic mountains in the distance, I realize that Hell Fire are the real deal and the perfect soundtrack for such an adventure. They not only play in the style of the greats of the ’80s, but they also write songs that could stand toe-to-toe with what those legends produced. This is road-tested and highly recommended for olde timers and fans of the olde timey.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: RidingEasy Records
Websites: hellfiremetal.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/hellfiremetalsf | hellfiremetal.com
Releases Worldwide: March 29th, 2019