Hell isn’t a unique topic in the realms of heavy metal. Whether it’s scalding hot or freezing cold, overpopulated with sinners or barren like a desert filled with tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes, Satan’s home and permanent tourist hot-spot has been covered to death and undeath too many times to count. Many metal bands, from Black Sabbath to the kvltest of tr00 black metal, weaved so many tales of that realm that it’s become old hat now. M.S.W., the sole member of Salem, Oregon’s Hell, knows this. Over the course of three numerical self-titled albums, Hell‘s droning take on the concept of Hell has won over many doom metal fans over the last decade. With this newest (and second self-titled), M.S.W. has come closest to achieving what Hell feels like to the listener.
Mere seconds into opener “Helmzmen,” the fat riffing and thunderous drums make their presence felt, leveling heads and eardrums with ease. Then there’s the bass. Gross, distorted, grimy, chewy bass that feels wet and diseased. Bass that, upon listening, will make you want to take a shower to scrape the filth off. In other words, the bass tone is disgustingly awesome. Adding to the misery, the indecipherable vocals howl, yowl, hiss, screech, and caw with unhinged insanity, adding to the miserable feeling one gets when hopelessly trapped in their own private nightmare. This isn’t doom that begs you to boogie and groove, or doom that laments in sadness and woe. This is Doom (capital “D” intended) that instills dread in the listener, eschewing the false hope that things will be okay in the end.
And that dread lingers and grows as the minutes progress. “SubOdin” and “Inscriptus” both have moments where Hell “rocks out,” coming the closest to what demons would consider a good party tune, but they’re still covered in soot and brimstone ash. Instrumental “Wandering Soul” contains a decent Grief-esque groove, offering what little light the album allows the listener to enjoy. But the most effective statement of intent comes in the form of the 17-minute one-two punch of the final two songs. First up, the twelve-minute “Victus” lurches like a diseased behemoth before spreading out with a tremolo riff at four minutes in, launching into a somber melody (complete with violins) at 6:33, and finally decimating from 8:45 onward with riff after crushing riff. And closer “Seelenos” is the musical equivalent of Nosferatu the Vampyre‘s Lucy Harker surveying the wreckage of her beloved city of Wismar after Count Dracula moves in. A somber guitar melody and a woman’s operatic wailing offer not peace, but rather the dismal aftermath of a journey wrought with despair and hopelessness. A fitting end to a dreary endeavor.
Soundwise, Hell is punishing. Normally, I would complain about the lack of dynamics on offer, but it fits the overall theme of the band’s (and album’s) concept. I do wish the acoustic guitar buried within “Victus” was given a bit more room to shine, but it still fits, smothered as it is. Maybe shaving a bit off of “Inscriptus” and “Wandering Soul” could make a stronger impact as well, but those are nitpicks. Rarely before have I listened to a concept executed as well as here. Much like other doom heavyweights like SunnO))) and Vainaja, Hell struck gold here.
Mind you, this is a love-it-or-hate-it album. The off-kilter vocals and layers of dense distortion will drive away many listeners, denying the album a fair shake. Push onward, however, and there’s much to discover and (miserably) enjoy. Hell is lonely, scary, and devoid of light and hope. Hell is brutal, beautiful, and awesome. Hell is essential for those who want to experience Doom at its most crushing.