I’m sure some of you are curious about what really goes on in the sordid business of penning seven-hundred words screeds about metal records, so I’ll give you some Hollywood Insider-type revelations. First off, harems of groupies are a bit less common than generally assumed. Second, writing under the influence is a lot more common than generally assumed. Third, there’s no such thing as a fair review. Each critic has a baseline of what’s good in any given sub-sub-sub-genre, and the more a record adheres to the template abstracted from that standard, the higher the score. Of course, we’ll disagree on what’s best where, and so the best we can try for is an honest review. Screamer, a group of jovial Norwegian retro-rock revivalists, are putting out their third Hell Machine soon, and there’s a very particular standard by which it ought to be judged.
The standard I’m referring to is Audrey Horne’s masterful Pure Heavy, far and away the best record of the retro-rock revival movement. What Screamer and their ilk are doing is at once playing the nostalgia card and updating it enough to not sound stuck in a bygone era, much like DOOM successfully did. The massive rock playing of old bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Rainbow is infused with the metal edge of bands like Accept and Iron Maiden, essentially beefing up classic rock. When younger folks are told that metal is the child of old classic or heavy blues rock, this is the sort of stuff we picture when we put on the rose-tinted glasses and stare longingly at a bygone time we didn’t live through.
While opener “Alive” sets the stage nicely with some deft big-rock jamming and a stupidly catchy chorus, Screamer really hits their stride with “On My Way.” It wisely incorporates a bit of speed metal into the proceedings, sounding like a more rock-oriented version of the underrated Speedbreaker mixed with some well-done Thin Lizzy melodies in the chorus. “Warrior” is a burly tune that has a tinge of Visigoth’s take on classic metal with a rousingly good singalong chorus. Its bridge section and requisite lead are the best on Hell Machine, and every transition is nothing short of great. The Van Halen-isms of “Monte Carlo Nights” beef up the fun party rock of the DLR era while keeping the hooks sharp, and the added twin guitar harmonies help make it a fun and engaging song.
To be perfectly clear upfront, there are no bad songs here. There are not, however, any songs that reach the high level of clarity, focus, energy, conciseness, and sheer fun of Audrey Horne’s magnum opus. For instance, “Lady of the Night” begins remarkably strong with a good verse and pre-chorus, but essentially strikes out at tee-ball for its chorus, which is weaker than the pre-chorus. After the chorus, a decent guitar melody comes into play, but this is repeated ad nauseam and passed off as a bridge later on. This bridge represents another issue that pesters Hell Machine: time management. Pure Heavy got in, got out, and left the listener wanting more, but Screamer left me full. Not unhappily so, but in a similar way to forcing down the last of an oversized meal because you like it. “Denim and Leather” features plenty of good elements, but they’re not used or structured effectively, giving the impression of a song that runs out of steam before the finish line.
Judging things on their own merit is a fool’s errand, and Screamer illustrates why. As this triangle isn’t judged on how good it is at being that particular triangle but on being a triangle generally, Hell Machine falls short of the standards of their early and contemporary forebears but, taken on its own, is enjoyable in its own right. The production is full-bodied, warm, natural, and pleasant, giving the songs exactly the right sound. There’s no way this will knock Pure Heavy out of anyone’s rotation, and if you don’t like that record you probably won’t like this one very much either. If you’re into this sort of thing, this is good but you can do better. And, judging by the highlights here, so can Screamer.