Hell | ‘Curse & Chapter’
Second albums are always difficult. But how do you improve on a debut that was the album of the year to so many?
When Hell released their debut album Human Remains, it fairly took the metal scene by storm. Multiple album of the year awards, 5 out of 5 on here and I personally ranked it as my favourite metal album of the past 20 years.
Two years on and that hasn’t changed. Human Remains is still the album that gets fired on at every house party we throw and the singalongs still take precedence over anything else. Naturally the band now have to seriously prove themselves with the follow-up, particularly with it being a mix of old and new tracks, so how do you possibly follow up a perfect album?
Hell have chosen the most logical route – by changing nothing about their style and making it a literally direct continuation of Human Remains. Curse & Chapter, (keeping the mood going with another delightful punny stab at religion) opens with the end quote from ‘No Martyr’s Cage’ “In a world devoid of divinity, only the human remains” which concluded abruptly with an ominous slamming door.
With ‘Gehennae Incendiis’ we find out where that door led, and are greeted with sounds of burning fire and tortured souls and whispering scheming demons as the band take us through hell itself, a massive pompous orchestral intro with harsh, sharply screeching violin strikes and chanting choirs blasting into the previously released 10″ single ‘The Age Of Nefarious.’
Written mostly by vocalist David Bower, it’s immediately apparent that the man can write a metal song. He takes over the lyric writing for the majority of the new tracks and not only ensures that they are indistinguishable from the 80s tracks, but that they are even more Hell than Hell.
Heavy on the alliteration and rhymes as in ‘Blasphemy And The Master’, the new tracks just kick ass so damn much, that you find yourself copying Bower’s stage moves as you sing along to the chorus. Unashamedly so, by the way.
Yes, it’s completely over the top and a total rip off of The Fifth Dimension’s more famous number, but who cares – it’s way more bad ass this way and completely impossible to listen to without a cheesy grin. Only a band as theatrical as Hell could possibly get away with making this one work.
An early nod of admiration has to be given to Bower here for his stunning work on the vocals on the album. He’s taken his performance style from ‘Macbeth’ off the last album and used it for every song on the new one. Each word gets several syllables stressed in different ways, histrionic in parts, evil in others and always engaging.
It’s a remarkable step up and quite possibly the highlight of the album, as every single word is acted as much as sang and this passion comes through strongly in the overall enjoyment of the album.
‘The Disposer Supreme’ is most certainly the most complicated song the band have ever done, just listen to it – 17 key changes and 12 time signature changes in only the first half of the song. It’s one of the classic 80s ones and yet actually pales between the two new songs flanking it, ‘Nefarious and ‘Darkhangel’ easily blowing it away.
I have to admit to a sense of trepidation with the new stuff before I heard it – I mean how can you possibly write a better song than ‘Plague & Fyre’ or ‘Let Battle Commence’ 30 years down the line? The simple answer turned out to be: you don’t. You just write different styles of songs that turn out to be equally good despite not being as heavy on the verse/chorus/verse as before.
‘Darkhangel’ itself features a faint wax cylinder recording of Aleister Crowley subtly sowing the seeds of Satan in the background of the song as the band tell the tale of his attempt to raise the Darkhangel Pan in 1930s Paris.
It’s a cracker of a song, heavy on the hooks throughout and a fantastic vocal layout, background chantings of “rise…rise…rise” during the lyrics dealing with the actual raising of the demon, and some brilliantly timed rhythmic satanic chanted lyrics that really stick out.
The packaging of the album works well for this song in particular – the digipack folding out no less than eight separate times to form an Ouija board for the listener to conjure up an oppressor of their own.
Keeping with the theme of including a pre-Hell Race Against Time cover on an album, ‘Harbinger Of Death’ also includes Alan Short and Geoff Green, bass player and drummer of the band to do backing vocals, harking back to their use of Dave Halliday’s vocals in ‘Plague & Fyre’ on Human Remains.
As a tribute to the fact that parts of the song were used to create the Hell track ‘Intense Is The Sense Of Doom,’ a verse from that song is worked into the cover, giving the full credits to RAT rather than just taking it all and making ‘Intense Is The Sense Of Doom’ a full track instead; an admirable move by the band and another great tribute to the departed but never forgotten Halliday.
‘End Ov Days’ is one of a (I have actually edited this bit no less than four times) quartet of equally killer songs that are the absolute highlights of the album; with an unreal chorus, yet again featuring perfect stressing on the right words to make it rhyme and scan perfectly:
Fear your God, as God is your fear – the end is nigh
Through this God, this God of fear – we sin here, then in fear we die
This chorus in particular works brilliantly, and again Hell use a sneaky take on the inexplicably irritating use of “ov” in metal to get in another jab at organised religion, in that ov refers to witchcraft in Hebrew – it’s a delightful dig at the Book Of Revelations featured in the song.
The instrumental B-side of the original ‘Save Us From Those Who Would Save Us’ 7” release sounds miles better with a proper chunky production, good and heavy in the drums and guitars but crystal clear in the keyboards.
Current live highlight and possible future single ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ has hooks absolutely hanging out of it and a killer chorus with a lot of background stuff going on that will take many more listens to fully unravel – and I’ve already played this album a hell of a lot since buying it.
It’s completely clear that the Hell’s new stuff is better than the old stuff and if I was to hear that two years ago I’d have laughed at the fool saying it. But it’s true – the new songs beats the 80s songs hands down and there’s just no comparison.
Indeed, it’s damned hard picking which single track to include for this review, and doubtless I’ll want to change it in a few weeks, but ‘Faith Will Fall’ is the best bridge between Human Remains and Curse & Chapter. It’s actually an unusual song, pretty much in the same vein as ‘The Quest’ from before, in that it stands a bit apart from the rest of the album, with a very catchy chorus.
‘Land Of The Living Dead’ was the track that most fans were amazed at being left out of Human Remains, and hearing it recorded properly and with a killer vocalist, it’s actually a bummer of a song; because if Masoleum hadn’t imploded and as a result breaking up the band, this is the song that would have put them on the map, and would today be considered a metal classic.
It’s the song that I most wanted to hear David Bower sing and he doesn’t disappoint – totally over the top, faster than before and more unhinged, yet with total control; this will be the song that kicks most arse in Hell’s 2014 gigs.
‘Deliver Us From Evil’ is another 80s live favourite, and it’s a complete stormer, in the same fist pumping style as ‘Let Battle Commence’ and it will obviously be a beast of a song in the live arena today – it’s made for a theatrical performer such as Bower to run around the stage and act out.
On record, producer and guitarist Andy Sneap has made the chorus decidedly unsettling with a rapid flicker between left and right speakers for the ‘Deliver us from e-v-i-l’ part. It’s enough to throw the listener every time and leave you nice and unbalanced for Bower’s ferociously defiant decrying in the last verse where he goes beyond the lyrics to scream ad-libbed blasphemy to Heaven.
‘A Vespertine Legacy’ ends the album, with a retelling of the Nosferatu story told from the perspective of the monster himself and featuring a bewildering array of ethnic instruments and Romanian spoken words warning friends away from the dead. It ends with an ominous ticking of a grandfather clock suggesting there is a lot more to come from Hell and it’s only a matter of time…
Curse & Chapter is easily the best album of 2013. Nothing is touching it, and nothing is coming close. It’s the logical successor to Human Remains, thoroughly its equal and in many ways its better – far better than it has any right to be and far better than even die hard fans could have hoped for.
What the band need to ensure now is that every single new song appears in their live sets to completely put the icing on the cake. Album of the month by a mile, and album of the year for the second time in two years – Hell can do no wrong.
5 / 5 – Dónal McBrien ::: 10/12/13