Hell - Human remains 4.5/5
1. Overture: Themes from "death squad"
2. On earth as it is in Hell
3. Plague and fyre
4. The oppressors
5. Blasphemy and the master
6. Let battle commence
7. The Devil's deadly weapon
8. The quest
10. Save us from those who would save us
11. No martyr's cage
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was littered with sob stories, of course, but Hell’s was one of the few that was truly tragic. Inept management (Diamond Head), dodgy contracts (Cloven Hoof), lack of interest from record labels and the press (Angel Witch) and sudden bouts of songwriting insanity (Diamond Head again) brought many a promising young band to their knees by the end of the once-illustrious musical movement.
Hell suffered something along the lines of the Angel Witch problem, and after 5 years of relentless, expensive hard work they were left in 1986 (the last drab of ash on the end of the NWOBHM cigarette) with nothing to show for themselves but a handful of poorly recorded demos, 7-inches and rehearsal tapes, along with a collapsed record deal with a diddy Belgian label. All this proved too much for the band to continue together, and for vocalist Dave Halliday to even continue at all, eventually taking his own life in early 1987.
But then a few years ago came rumblings of a comeback so unlikely that it would be laughed out of Hollywood. The good fortune of counting a world-renowned producer as your biggest ever fan is something most retired bands could only dream of – not only has Andy Sneap recorded the CD to crisp, modern perfection, but he has also probably fulfilled something close to a lifelong dream by picking up the guitar in place of Halliday. On top of that, after a meticulous self-financed recording process, a band that didn’t exist for close to 20 years has now found themselves tied to no less than Nuclear Blast - now that really is ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff.
I suppose I’d better curtail the essay at this point and get along with the, er, reviewing the music part of this review. The thing about Hell, from what I’ve been able to glean from the nth generation MP3 copies of the old demos that had until now been their only legacy is that they really were something quite special. At times very much your typical sprightly NWOBHM band, and at others something else entirely – something much darker and more complex, with a massive theatrical and occult flair that often sees comparisons drawn with Mercyful Fate.
Halliday was naturally the focal point of the band and the very epitome of a larger-than-life, eccentric frontman, his quavering, melodramatic vocals an utterly essential one-off. Replacing such an, well, irreplaceable, singer was the main sticking point for this proposed re-tooling of the band, but after a brief period of working with Sneap’s Sabbat mate Martin Walkyier, Hell stumbled apparently by accident onto guitarist Kev Bower’s younger brother Dave, and the results really are far beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. At times it is almost frightening how similar he sounds to Halliday, matching all his mad lilts and croons to perfection, but at the same time he possesses a ferocious edge to his vocals (that oddly actually is reminiscent of a certain Mr Walkyier) that the original singer wasn’t even close to. In fact, in the spirit of blasphemy that I’m sure the band would have to approve of, I’d even dare to say that he is an improvement over the original, and that is high praise indeed.
Ditching the well-known veteran for a total unknown is also a commendable bit of resistance to stunt casting, and shows that ‘Human remains’ truly is a labour of love (how keen do you think Nuclear Blast would have been to add “Feat. Martin Walkyier (Sabbat, ex-Skyclad)!” to the promo sticker on the case?) for all concerned.
Similarly, while there may have been some faint anxiety about Sneap overly-modernising the bands distinctly 80s-rooted sound, these concerns too have been thoroughly dispelled and he does the same masterful job here as he did with Accept on ‘Blood of the nations’, completely updating the band’s sonic quality while at the same time sacrificing none of their raw edge.
In fact it is at times as puzzling as it is joyous to hear such archetypal NWOBHM riffs as those that see the CD explode into life with the staggeringly brilliant “On earth as it is in Hell” through the medium of such audio perfection. The keyboards that were an increasingly huge part of Hell’s sound as their career wore on have also benefited hugely from the advance in recording technology - I love the cheesy synth tones on the original take of “The Devil’s deadly weapon” as much as the next stuffy elitist, but there’s simply no arguing with the classy sound the song is layered with now.
The lengths gone to reach atmospheric perfection in this regard are greatly commendable too, and tie all of ‘Human remains’ together in a perfect dark cloak. The bagpipe intro to “Macbeth”, followed by a truly ridiculous recitation of the opening lines from Shakespeare’s tragedy (remarkably salvaged from an old demo tape and actually featuring Halliday’s voice on the finished product) is something that really has to be heard to be believed, and it is an essential part of a brilliant song.
With a large catalogue of songs to choose from, Bower and Sneap have combed carefully through them and compiled a batch that not only represent all aspects of Hell’s sound, but also flow from song to song with enough variety that ‘Human remains’ very much feels like a proper CD in its own right rather than a patched-up best of.
Epics like “Blasphemy and the master” and “The Devil’s deadly weapon” show Hell at their most dramatic and complex, while the upbeat power metal of “The quest” and the infectious, galloping fan-favourite “Save us from those who would save us” show a different side of the coin altogether. It’s also easy to forget just how old some of these songs are and how crazily advanced they were for the time – “Plague and fire” in particular, dating as far back as 1982 is a work of unbelievable pace and intensity, and the younger Bower really thrives in his battle with Halliday’s complex vocal patterns.
If I had to grumble, it would maybe be that there are a couple of Hell classics missing from the tracklist, including one of my personal favourites in “Land of the living dead”, but on the whole ‘Human remains’ is honestly better than anyone could have hoped for. Even if they record nothing more after this, it is a headstone any band could be proud of, and it almost brings a tear to the eye to see a tragic underdog story like this finally attain some measure of a happy ending.
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