It’s a great time to be a doom fan. It feels like the genre is going through a burst of creativity at the moment. Bands who are failing to keep up, however, can find themselves left by the wayside. Hex A.D. is a quartet hailing from Norway, and their first two albums, Even the Savage Will See Fair Play and The Last Nail in the Coffin Lid consisted of fairly run-o’-the-mill sludgy, stoner doom. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there was little to distinguish them from many of their peers. Their latest effort would have to offer something tastier than their previous platters to distract me from the doom buffet of 2018.
Fortunately, Hex A.D. has made great strides forward with Netherworld Triumphant. Organist and mellotron controller, Magnus Johansen, has spent a lot of time working with Jon Lord from Deep Purple, while the other members have been touring Europe with a variety of bands and artists. Now they’ve reunited and brought all their combined experiences and influences together. The result is an album that sports a varied mix of funk, blues, and progressive rock. This eclectic style makes Netherworld Triumphant an immediately more arresting and interesting album than its two predecessors.
Eclecticism on its own, however, is not enough to make a compelling album. Luckily, Hex A.D. consists of talented musicians who are able to handle these different styles with grace and balance. In addition, the band members have clearly benefited from time spent playing live shows: there’s an improvisational and joyful—but never sloppy—style to their performances. This is best exemplified by “Netherworld Triumphant Pt. I.” A funky, driving riff introduces proceedings before the song settles into its catchy, mid-paced groove. A harsh chorus follows some very bluesy keyboards before a Pink Floyd-esque solo takes over. In inexperienced hands, this could have sounded like an unfocused mess, but Johansen combines organically with bassist ‘Arry Gogstad and drummer Matt Hagan. The result is a catchy and enjoyable track which, despite all the different influences, never abandons its focus or its crunching doom roots.
The rest of the album follows suit, combining new influences with the band’s core sound of ol’ fashioned, muscular doom. When they let loose and simply focus on getting those neck muscles flexing, such as on the second half of “WarChild,” they succeed admirably. The new influences have not diminished their understanding that a great doom track lives or dies on the strength of the riff. Even when they tone things down, such as on the predominantly-acoustic “Boars on Spears,” Hex A.D. stays focused on keeping the listener engaged with their crunchy and bluesy take.
A band can lose its identity by combining so many classic doom elements into a single record, however. What Hex A.D. gains in eclecticism, it loses in originality. Some of the riffs in “Ladders to Fire” sound like they could have been lifted wholesale from any number of Black Sabbath records, while a couple of the solos—the one in “Skeleton Key Skeleton Hand” being the most egregious offender—are obvious Deep Purple derivatives. While Hex A.D. do manage to partially stamp their brand on proceedings, there is a nagging sense that you could be listening to any number of other bands doing something very similar. Netherworld Triumphant works well as a whole by building toward a palpable climax over a manageable fifty minutes. As a result, the album never overstays its welcome, nor feels tiresome. The production is clean, and wisely emphasizes the funk and bluesy aspects of the songs, but it also brings Rick Hagan’s vocals to the fore. While he has a pleasing set of pipes, you feel that many of the songs would have benefited if he pushed his vocal range a bit more.
Netherworld Triumphant is a bold step in the right direction for Hex A.D. The band’s songwriting has improved dramatically, with new elements resulting in an album that’s far more free-flowing, interesting and varied than previous efforts. It will most certainly scratch that classic doom itch of yours, even if it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It isn’t quite original enough to elevate the band to the upper echelons of doom, but if the next album is as big an improvement on its predecessor as this one was, Hex A.D. has the potential to become a force in the doom scene. Keep your eye on them.