If you were a burgeoning musician wanting to take inspiration from the best the thrash scene has to offer, one would most likely seek out the bands perched at the summit of the genre – The Big Four. During their halcyon years Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax loomed large over the thrash landscape, basking in success and spawning a fanbase so large it defied a horizon. Many bands surfaced in the Big Four’s wake and while they never captured the zeitgeist, acts such as Overkill, Kreator, and Annihilator managed to stake a claim in the thrash firmament. But there existed a tier below the A and B-listers, bands like Allegiance, Heathen and Xentrix who eked out a modest existence built on solid albums supported by a coterie of eager followers. This is not a vein you’d expect a modern thrash band to mine for inspiration, yet that is exactly where Hellnite have chosen to strike their pickaxe with their debut album, Midnight Terrors. It’s an odd choice, aiming for the margins rather than trying to re-create the sound, aesthetic and success of the apex predators of the genre. Sometimes it pays to seek the road less traveled. Let’s see if Hellnite managed to find their way.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dismissive of lower-tier thrash bands or that I’m lionizing the juggernauts as the north star to taste and fortune. If anything I have a soft-spot for the minnows, with albums like Toxik’s Think This and Allegiance’s Destitution considered among my favorites. I just find it peculiar how an album bearing all the hallmarks of an obscure 90s band, from the amateurish cover art to the flat, homely production is by design and not an undiscovered curio gathering dust in a dilapidated antiques store. Imagine my surprise then to discover that despite the record’s numerous rough spots, Midnight Terrors is an enjoyable affair, brimming with solid riffs and accomplished song writing. It’s also not pure thrash, despite what the first couple of tracks may lead you to believe, arcing between thrash and hardcore like a shuttlecock at the mercy of a pair of indefatigable badminton players.
Take the opening salvo of “Projection” and “Phantom Force:” the former is a clipped instrumental opener while the latter is a bloodless, insipid thrasher. The riffs and lead work produced show technical merit but have the menace of a disused butter knife. If the rest of the Midnight Terrors followed in kind then it wouldn’t even wrinkle the bedsheets, so it’s a relief that “Spirits Prevail” sounds like it came from another, better album. Vocalist/guitarist Paolo Belmar spits out his words like Snake from Voivod; the guitars, now alive are sharpened to an edge, sounding more akin to Poison Idea in execution and tone. Suddenly we have something interesting on our hands, a record that bangs heads with a strong hardcore influence and a stronger identity. Except that identify is at times confused.
It would be tempting to declare Hellnite a crossover act in the vein of Municipal Waste were it not for the constant fluctuations of style from track to track. “Thrash of the Living Dead” lives up to its moniker but still retains a grimy punk attitude, similar in concept to “Zombie Crew” by Send More Paramedics. Following this stomper you’re treated to arguably the best track on the album, the instrumental “Darker Than Black.” With a cosmic wistfulness that channels Metallica’s “Orion,” the track soon shifts into a swirling gnashing of riffs and hypersonic percussion. It’s nothing short of remarkable, building layer by layer, introducing novel elements like Deep Purple-like keys and even some trippy, slapping Hawkwind bass.
The latter-half of Midnight Terrors certainly fares better than the former but while the music is commendable it’s still afflicted with a lack of focus, unable to wholly resolve whether it wants to commit to thrash or hardcore. That’s not to say that Hellnite must draw a line in the sand and declare its allegiance. If they were able to blend both approaches seamlessly then there would be no problem. However, that is not the case as those elements tended to separate like eggs in a poor meringue mixture. This can partially be attributed to the album’s difficult gestation, recorded across Mexico, Japan and Canada, but ultimately I would wager this is a case of a green band trying find their own unique identity. Had the album released as an EP with just the stronger cuts, including the addictive closer “Midnight Terrors,” then it would likely be vying for a spot in my end-of-year “best of” list. As it stands, Midnight Terrors reaches for greatness but fails to secure its grip. Hellnite may present the plumage of a minor thrash band but with time and a surer sense of purpose I have no doubt they will emerge with the strength to scale the summit. Whether they are successful remains to be seen.