Hell | ‘Human Remains’
Hell are the single greatest band you’ve never heard of. Creating a local satanic panic in the tabloid news during the early 80s, their stage show, attitude and attire came straight from Hades itself. With live shows that were as theatrical and unusual as they were entertaining, they were destined to be huge as part of the NWOBHM.
However, the collapse of Mausoleum Records led to a total breakdown in the band’s career, and the dissolution of the band, with the subsequent suicide of frontman Dave Halliday in 1987 surely putting the final nail in the band’s coffin.
That is, until a chance encounter between producer extraordinaire Andy Sneap (a fan from back in the day) and the son of Kev Bower, the original guitarist, led to a jamming session for a bit of nostalgia, then to an absolute surge back into the metal scene with a full time reformation.
Before “Human Remains” was even released properly, critics who had heard advance copies of the album were proclaiming it as the album of the year at worst, and album of the past 25 years at best. Bold claims for a band that only released one 7” record back in the day, and even more so when you consider that half the band hadn’t played for more than two decades.
But Satan works in mysterious ways, and with the recruitment of Kev Bower’s brother Dave on vocals, the original spirit of Hell has been released from the grave and unleashed in the form of this incredible album. Yes – “Human Remains” is the album of the year, and I daresay it’s the album of the past several years.
Hell’s only other release (barring the High Roller Records unofficial LP of a few years back) was a 7” of ‘Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us’, a record that gained cult status early on due to the rarity and astronomical price it commands on the second hand market. So, up until now, the only way of hearing the early stuff was to pay over the odds for the 7”, (or buy the Phoenix Records bootleg of it like your intrepid reviewer), or listen to a multi-generationed tape of the tracks. These tracks were of horrible quality, hissy with a total lack of clarity, and it meant that Hell were still confined to the underground of the underground, despite their cult status.
But now, Andy Sneap has painstakingly restored all these tracks to their former glory, and the difference is remarkable. The utter unhinged-ness of the songs gives a strong sense of how insane a spectacle their live show would have been back in the day. The inner sleeve shows plenty of pictures of the band playing live, and it’s almost impossible to reconcile the music with the pictures – it’sthatweird. But brilliantly weird in a Slauter Xstroyes sense.
Presented in a luxurious triple LP (red vinyl naturally) with a three-way foldout sleeve, the vinyl edition is a beast, consisting of the new album plus bonus tracks of the original songs. The cover is well chosen, depicting the fallen one himself striding menacingly from the burning city of London, blood dripping from his hands. It’s a nice nod to their song ‘Plague And Fyre’, dealing with the 1666 Great Fire Of London.
Religious iconography abounds, with the snake and apple from the Garden of Eden tale rotting and decayed around a tree with faces of the blasphemous damned screaming out of it. There’s also a subtle inclusion of Halliday’s face staring out from the clouds. It’s a great cover, and I couldn’t imagine a more fitting one considering the music.
The amount of care put into the package cannot be understated, particularly the double digipack edition – the outer case has an embossed logo, the discs have 666 emblazoned on them that can only be seen by turning the CD to the light, and are coloured red (CD1) or black (CD2) on both sides, the booklet has extra artwork the LP doesn’t have, but the crowning glory is that the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds long. That just fucking rules.
But it’s all about the music. Starting off with a derivation of ‘Deathsquad’ from the original 7”, it segues nicely into the outstanding ‘On Earth As It Is In Hell’, a phenomenal display of just how impossibly relevant to the metal scene Hell are going to become in the coming years. Having shot a video for this song (and the image and actions of the band live is a whole ‘nother world of gleeful metal wonder), listeners were able to see how newbie Dave Bower stacks up against the cult vocals of Dave Halliday.
Thankfully, he goes for a demented and almost hysterically unhinged style throughout the album. He absolutely lets loose on this, far more than any fan could realistically have imagined or hoped for, getting completely into the spirit of the original music, having seen the band live many times in the past. His craft is honed to perfection; it just sounds right and feels right.
The track fades out to a drone which opens ‘Plague And Fyre’ with its harrowing sound of the death-cart horses and bellringers extolling the unfortunate to bring out their dead. A great point to note is that they used Halliday’s original vocals here so that he could be in the album not only in spirit, but also in body, as it were.
This song has several fine examples of vocal styling used to great effect with the lyrics, notably “No, no, no – nobility’s no sanctuary, flee, flee, flee – the rat’s bubonic flea”, and the sheer unashamed cheesiness of “As 1665 turns into SIX SIX SIX” is just glorious. The dementedly English vocals manage to replace the potential cringe-inducing parts with something that’s actually cool, and representative of the disastrous pair of years when London burned to the ground after the Black Death.
‘The Oppressors’ reveals a large Alice Cooper influence in the lyrics, inspired by an Alan Short poem, and the whole atmosphere could have been lifted straight off “Welcome To My Nightmare” – it’s that accurate. Alternating vocal tracks with Kev Bower works to great effect, creating a discordant, mentally damaged feel which complements the lyrics of alien abduction and subsequent disbelief from the authorities.
‘The Quest’ comes next – at least on the vinyl version, on the CD it’s ‘Blasphemy And The Master”, and it was the first song the band ever wrote. It’s somewhat out of place on the album, being a joyful number not unlike a pop hit with a metal tune attached. It features a fantastic singalong chorus though, and if it had’ve been released in the early 80s as a single, it would have worked as a fantastic commercial intro to the band.
Potential album highlight (and one of at least 4 equally highly rated numbers) ‘Blasphemy And The Master’ is up next and has Bower’s finest vocal performance as he pleads in absolute terror and regret for Satan to have mercy on his soul, ultimately to be rejected as the devilish laugh of Satan forms from Bower’s final scream.
Vocal tradeoffs with Kev work well again here, and the cautionary tale in the lyrics takes on an evil aspect in the hissing, sibilant line of “and speaking slowly, summons wretched sinners seeking sanctuary…” The horrified scream after the Latin chant which foretells his damnation is truly spine chilling. The backwards message in the lyrics is an odd one, but full of unforgiving spite and defiance and as such actually suits its place here. The final verse ends with more great vocal rhyming working to tremendous aplomb as Bower is damned to hell in base servility, each particular sentence rhyming beautifully in several parts, the riffing in particular standing out.
Live gig opener ‘Let Battle Commence’ is oddly placed on the album, being much better suited as the album opener, but it’s such a killer track that placement is soon ignored. Special mention has to go to the gloriously Hammer Horror line of “and then the prey will pray” which absolutely kills. Love it!
Fan favourite ‘The Devil’s Deadly Weapon’ slows the album right down to a mid-paced, almost (dare it be said) Nightwishy beginning with the female choir and synths, but it crunches into metallic riffs and a Bower / Sneap solo tradeoff which quickly dispels that feeling. Some extremely high pitched vocals are shrieked here which really make the track stand out – and a torturous spoken verse from Kev gives it that extra evil edge.
Live favourite ‘Macbeth’ starts with a droning bagpipe dirge leading into the sinister cackling of the three sisters weird from That Scottish Play, before starting into an ambitious task – to condense the full tale into 7 short verses, yet it works brilliantly as an almost bullet point overview.
The combination of Bower / Sneap soloing blending into bagpiping and leading into quick-rhyming staccato lyrics in the 5th verse is a particular masterstroke, and is definitely the hook of the song, yet it’s never overblown – the solos are short and simple and effective as, well, hell.
And then – the most anticipated song on the album. ‘Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us’ starts with chilling soundbites from the news extolling the despicable crimes committed by priests under the auspices of a paedophile-protecting Catholic Church. Each soundbite is damning – the Vatican’s covering up of child rape, the excuses made that the priests were tempted by the devil – it’s harrowing and sickening, filling the listener with such rage that the opening riff is just about heavy and pounding enough to suit your mood.
Lyrically, it’s a condemnation of those who have seen the “freedom” of religion and thus are “Self appointed guardians, no better than me or you” laying down rules based on superstition and a misguided moral high ground. 29 years after its recording, it’s never been a more pertinent song and is a far more powerful anti-religious message than the average Deicide number.
‘No Martyr’s Cage’ finishes the album with a track that sounds for all the world like a song off the next Candlemass album; Bower even sounding like Rob Lowe. It’s a decidedly odd closer considering the sheer manic venom that ‘Save Us’ left us with, but once the lyrics are sung (with some well-realised onomatopoeic words evoking a vicious atmosphere), it becomes clear that this song could only have came next, dealing with the sheer idiocy of those who choose to martyr themselves for a delusion, dealt cuttingly with the line “Is this fantasy? – or insanity?” and ended with the killer line “In a world devoid of divinity, only the human remains…”
Following the new tracks are the highly anticipated reworked Dave Halliday tracks, all lifted from Hell’s 1982 – 1986 demos and live rehearsals, and a remarkable job has been done by Sneap. It’s a pleasure to hear the classic tracks with such clarity.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll omit a full track by track review of the songs and leave it with a recommendation that you buy the vinyl or digipack edition of this album at all costs so that you can experience the sheer before-their-time insanity that was the first incarnation of Hell. However, the new album easily matches, and to be honest, usurps it in all the best ways. It gets full marks; it’s the album of the year, it really deserves every platitude it’s been awarded by the media, and it’s true what they say – the devil does have all the best tunes.
5 / 5 Dónal McBrien ::: 04/07/11