As the length of your average re-thrash album shrinks, so does the amount of brainpower worth expending on the genre. You needn’t be a Rhodes scholar to appreciate dirty licks and thirty years of glacial progress previously, but the pull towards a Reign in Blood-sized event horizon makes thrash feel more like grindcore at times. I struggle to decide whether to embrace the movement — if you have less to say, take less time to say it — or if I should expect more from a scene that once set trends. Hellish places me squarely in the middle with their sophomore album, The Spectre of Lonely Souls. My left brain demands something more engaging than howls and shred. Right brain says shut mouth, enjoy deep riff, dummdum fartface.
It would be easy to market Spectre as a riff-fest with little brains and less brakes. “The Night,” “The Walker of Shadows,” and “The Curse Upon Us” hide nothing. Immediately laying every card on the table isn’t always the wisest move, but these riffs are too damn good to give a shit. Full-throttle Hellish blast off on a blackened thrash freight train fueled by the meanest material worth cribbing from the 80’s. Fans of Slayer — both early- and mid-period — will find kinship with these Chileans, as will those fond of a good ole German lashing. But we’ve seen this before. Anyone can vomit out ten tracks of breakneck riffs, good, bad, or (and?) plagiarized. An. Y. One. Hellish set themselves apart simply by attempting more. The horror soundtrack piano intro — classy, not kitschy; the timely use of pacing throughout the record, especially on “Souls of Desolation;” the galloping NWOBHM rhythms of “Sacrifice;” Spectre presents more sonic variance than required or expected just beneath the surface of a record seemingly aspiring to the opposite.
The album’s sour spots come not from a flat presentation then. Its tightrope thrash is fluid, invigorating, and occasionally flat-out fun, while also providing some meat for the thinkers in the crowd. But as is our curse as humans, we need more of both. The riff quality can be excellent, but not consistently. The variety in Spectre‘s overall composition spice things up, but only briefly. The ’90’s Slayer stomp of “Souls of Desolation” and the malevolent build into “Only Death” develop the record’s tune into something both welcome and surprising, given its heretofore single-minded bombardment. When those tracks revert back to their typical thrashing, Hellish leave threads unpulled in favor of more of the same. Nothing about their standard shred tops the record’s better moments. Only “Sacrifice” goes the distance in twisting its almost melodic bent back into the thrash overall. Given that song’s highlight status, I can only imagine how the rest of the record would fare if deviant elements played out fully.
So too would I like more from Necromancer’s vocals. He renders moot the shifting sands built through Francisco Sanhueza and Noctumbra’s guitar work with his stagnant vocals. Growling and howling in thrash might not be my favorite thing — it certainly doesn’t help with the charisma factor — but it’s a well-loved rite in certain sects. Yet these vocals often stand apart from the actual music, unaffecting and disinterested. Howling unintelligibly satisfies a primal element more requisite for other genres and, when done poorly, fails to justify its inclusion in the music. That’s not to say thrash requires Rosetta Stone delivery to engage the listener; Skeletonwitch and Vektor, to name two, put a lot of emphasis on vocal involvement without sacrificing the skin-peeling qualities that steel-toe posers out of the Hall. Hit certain beats in (or off) time with the music. Scale back the intensity. Record somewhere other than Satan’s asshole. Do whatever works for you, but for the love of Mille, don’t waste your voice on a standard squawk when the rest of your act is merely good.
Stepping off the soapbox, The Spectre of Lonely Souls was still a nice little surprise. I expect the worst (or at least, the same) from the thrash acts I inhale from the promo pump. Even if proven wrong on the first count, I come away from most bands with the sense that their ceiling started low and is only falling. Not so with Hellish. Their riffs, when on, can hang with any I’ve heard this year, and their willingness to explore other aspects of their sound could extend their leash the next time around. The time to cut a riff and fuck the rest is past. Seize the brass ring, Hellish.