Firstly, yes, I see the classic Playstation game, Medievil badly reflected in that craptastic album art, and that makes me more kindly disposed toward the album. And Hessian seem to be my kind of jam, being retro metallers from the wilds of Portland, Maine with a bit of swagger and Devil may care attitude. Mercenary Retrograde is their sophomore slab of throwback fare and there’s a palpable tongue-in-cheek sense of fun and misadventure evident in their style, touching upon Thin Lizzy and Witchfinder General, as well as newer acts like Slough Feg and Dawnbringer. Does that mean you’re in store for a fun-filled, carefree trip down memory lane to the early 80s? More like being pushed down a steep, rocky decline on a bicycle with no seat.
Opener “I Wish I Was Dead” starts off in a funerary manner with somber, gravesite-appropriate weeping guitars before moving into an area between Pentagram and Slough Feg, led by simple but engaging 80s riffs and the “unique” vocals of Angus McFarland. His over-the-top delivery often seems cartoonish and madcap, but he does possess a bit of Arthur Brown’s (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) manic flair. The song itself works well and the silly but memorable chorus has been stuck in my head for weeks. The star of the show is followup “Skull Ring,” which is straight up Dawnbringer worship with slick trilling harmonies and a righteous rocking energy. It’s an instantly lovable song and the band lets their considerable swagga out with during sweet, sightly jazzy break out segments before returning to the Maiden meets Thin Lizzy gallop. Give me an album of this kind of stuff and you get top marks every time.
But that’s not what Hessian gave me. Not even close. Not even at all. While the maniacal “Legpuller” works and definitely leaves an impression, they go so far over the top as to become a kind of metal parody. Especially Angus’s vocals, which approximate those of Beef, the heavy metal diva from the long forgotten but brilliantly twisted Rocky Horror forerunner, Phantom of the Paradise. Sadly, the remainder of Mercenary Retrograde falls off the continental self with a collection of also ran tracks that undermine themselves in various amusing ways. “Leopold” is like an overwrought 60s ballad with great guitar-work but dreadful vocals. Angus sounds like he’s auditioning for Hammers of Misfortune and really blowing it, and it kills the song faster than an angry Thanos snap. “The Viper” is a dull, plodding muddle that only finds life in its final act when it becomes something like Foo Fighters playing old Black Sabbath. Closer “Manos The Hands of Fate” is named after one of the worst movies of all time, famously savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and while the song isn’t quite that awful, it isn’t going to win anyone over either.
What should be a very concise 38 minutes feels longer due to the plodding nature of some of the songs. The production is amazingly old school sounding, and it’s easy to imagine this was recorded in the 70s. The mix is dynamic and the instruments have warmth and space. It makes me wish the song writing was worthy of this nicely developed sound.
The band is talented, and the guitar-work by Angus and Zak Haab is quite impressive at times. Michael Pearce’s bass-work is also enjoyable, especially on the more jammy, free-flowing segments. While Angus has major issues with his vocal choices and his tendency to go way too far down the excess rabbit hole, the biggest problem is the wildly inconsistent writing. Some songs work and some really don’t. Sadly, most here fall into the latter category.
Hessian have some potential, and when everything clicks they can craft some fun, enjoyable cuts of the ancient variety. If they can tighten up their writing a lot, they could be a force in the retro throwback scene. As of now, they’re a lump of clay badly in need of molding, slapping and refining. Now bring back Medievil!
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 255 kbps mp3
Label: Stormspell Records
Websites: hessian-music.bandcamp.com/releases | facebook.com/hessianhighcommand
Releases Worldwide: September 14th, 2018