Hell:on – Shaman Review

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of acquiring some kick-ass band merch, am I right? Whether it arrives via a table at the back of a sweaty, darkened venue or through the postal service, getting my hands on a new shirt, hat, or record is always a delight. But do you ever wonder about the journey that said merch endured before finding its way into your loving embrace? I rarely do, but I found myself in this position when I finally put my hands on the beautiful CD case for Hell:on’s Scythian Stamm, one of my top 10 records of 2020. The band hails from Ukraine, and when Russia invaded their homeland, I decided I’d throw a tiny bit of support their way by ordering said CD. I received a response from the band, telling me that all of their merch was trapped in an office in Kyiv, which, at the time, was under direct Russian attack. When I told them they could keep my money regardless of whether or not they’d ever be able to fulfill the order, they wrote back, “Thank you! It will be shipped if we and/or our merch will survive! We believe in our country as never before, and Ukraine will stay!” I eventually received that CD, and its back story makes it one of the most precious in my collection. Years later, the war for Ukraine still rages on, and fortunately, so does Hell:on. It’s my pleasure to announce that they’re back with a new record, one forged in the flames of an ongoing fight for survival.

For those unfamiliar, Hell:on plays uncompromising death metal embellished by ritualistic influences; they sound like Behemoth might if that band dropped the black metal influences, picked up an assortment of folk instruments from all across Asia, and threw in some throat-singing from the steppes for good measure. These folk elements were used relatively sparingly on Scythian Stamm, and while relistening to that record recently, I found myself hoping that they’d dive into that aspect of their sound whole-heartedly on follow-up Shaman. Apparently, my wish is Hell:on’s command. Shaman dials the ritualism up enormously without losing an ounce of their death metal edge. The embedded single, an ode to Dr. A.N. Grier entitled “He with the Horse’s Head,” might be a fairly straightforward and brutal death metal song, but its riffing is enriched by acoustic strumming, its leads carry Middle Eastern melodies, and it culminates with a trance-inducing rhythm undergirded by throat-singing. It’s just what this Angry Metal non-doctor ordered.

Shaman succeeds because its various elements are exceedingly well-balanced. The album opens and closes wearing its tribalistic heart on its sleeve; opener “What Steppes Dream About” jumps out of the gates with folk instrumentation and throat-singing, while the closing title track finds the band overtly exploring their penchant for atmospheric mysticism. But while intermediate cuts like “Preparation for the Ritual” and “I Am the Path” keep the ritualism high, there are a couple of mostly straight-laced death metal bludgeoners to keep things from becoming too ethereal. “When the Wild Wind and the Soul of Fire Meet” is a slow-moving steamroller rife with heavy palm-muted triplets, while “Tearing Winds of Inner Self” dials the brutality up to dangerous levels as its title simultaneously gives me a fun new way to refer to my out-of-control flatulence.

I can’t find one single thing to complain about on Shaman. It’s nearly a perfect album in my book, and it only gets better the more I listen. The production is big and full, but it still allows the acoustic instruments to cut through the monstrous drums and guitars. Listening to this record has been an excellent analogy for its mystical themes; the deeper I dig, the more I discover. I can’t get over how well Hell:on have woven the acoustic instruments into the death metal sound, and it’s amazing how much heavier the music becomes because of those elements. There really are no standout tracks. At eight songs and 41 minutes, this album consists of one highlight after another.

This is exactly the record that I hoped Hell:on would make. Scythian Stamm sewed the seeds for this hope with its strategic use of tribalistic elements, and Shaman absolutely capitalizes on that foundation. This is a record that I can listen to over and over; its enormous death metal grooves combine with atmospheric ritualism to leave me in a constant state of enthrallment. I wish Hell:on the best as they still struggle to defend their homeland, but I hope they can take some comfort knowing that they’ve just released an Album o’ the Year contender.

Rating: Excellent
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Archivist Records
Websites: hellonband.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/hellonofficial | www.hell-on.net
Releases Worldwide: May 17th, 2024

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