Remember Spellcaster? I don’t, but Doc Grier loved their final album: Night Hides the World made his 2016 Top Ten(ish) List. After burning the fuse at both ends, however, the band folded. Now three-fifths of Spellcaster have regrouped as Idle Hands, led by bassist Gabe Franco (who switches to guitars and vocals here). Franco brings with him guitarist Sebastian Silva and drummer Colin Vranizan, and the lineup is rounded out with Brandon Hill on bass.1 Be warned, though: this is not Spellcaster 2.0. Gone are the almost-thrash, pure metal sounds of that band, as well as the Iron Maiden and Iced Earth influences. Idle Hands aim for something much different, plucking influences from the opposite end of the spectrum and assembling them into a fairly unique sound.
The band’s 2018 EP, Don’t Waste Your Time, was an alluring slice of goth-tinged hard rock/metal, and that style (as well as one song) carries over here on their debut album, Mana. Let’s get the name-drops out of the way, so I can move on from shoddy journalism and into an actual critique. Franco takes a lot of his influence from Sisters of Mercy and The Mission, and more recently, In Solitude and Tribulation. Or, for a super-obscure reference, look back to Héroes del Silencio.2 If any of those bands are in rotation in your hovel, Idle Hands will be in your wheelhouse. They hit the sweet spot of high energy, catchy melodies, and unique delivery, and the results on Mana are hard to stop playing.
The songs Idle Hands have written are what make Mana such a strong record. Influences and style only take you so far: here that’s all coalesced into some brilliant work. “Nightfall” launches the album on a headlong path down driving, melodic hard rock alleys, with magnetic verses and earworm choruses. Lead-off single “Give Me to the Night” is already near the top of my “Best Songs of 2019” playlist. It’s a frantic, anthemic rocker that raises your heart rate and your fists. Idle Hands kick ass on these fast-paced blasts, but they can also flip the script and deliver some truly haunting material. “It’ll be Over Before You Know it” slams the lid on any party atmosphere generated by the up-tempo songs, with its hypnotic guitar melodies, echoing bird calls, explosive percussion moments, and Franco’s Andrew Eldritch-style vocals casting a spell over us. Those are just a few of the highlights: of the eleven songs here, not a single one misses the mark.
Lyrics are an area we don’t often touch on in these reviews, either because a: we can’t understand a word, or b: they’re silly. But Franco has written some gripping material here, taking on suicide and loss (and dragons) throughout. In “Don’t Waste Your Time” he intones “No one will hold you in the night, you’re waiting to die. If you’re looking for some peace of mind, don’t waste your time.” The upbeat music of “Double Negative” is countered by the morbid lyrics “What if I could die, would you be alright? Would you suffer here without me–give me some time and I’ll be fine!” When he sings these lines, Franco’s voice embodies anguish, his delivery cracking with emotion. As strong as the songs are musically, the lyrics more than hold their own.
Mana is a simpler album than one might think. Listening closely reveals basic melodies, but what augments this is the layering going on. Clean guitars underpin almost all of the songs, with melodies reminiscent of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Stacked atop are more metallic guitar lines, resulting in an interesting juxtaposition: depending how you look at it, the songs are either metal with intriguing goth-rock embellishments, or goth-rock with catchy metallic guitarwork. Franco’s vocals, delivered in a gothic, stentorian manner, are also backed up by numerous harmonies and whispers, and he delivers a very charismatic performance. The only aspect of his vocals that detracts from Mana is his penchant for throwing in a ton of Scent of a Woman grunts, moans, and “hoo-ah!” proclamations in every song. These outbursts might be effective if they happened a handful of times on the album, but here they do become tedious.
Get past the goofiness of those Al Pacino moments, and what we’re left with is one of the strongest hard rock albums of the year. Mana bursts with energy and charisma, from the catchy anthems to the brooding, depressive numbers. Idle Hands’ debut record is sure to resonate with a ton of listeners. Don’t be shocked when you see it showing up on year-end lists seven months from now.