Having been rediscovered from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal a quarter of a century after that movement breathed its last, Nottingham’s Hell have been faced with an unusual problem with the creation of their sophomore album “Curse and Chapter.” 2011’s “Human Remains” was a resounding success, a smorgasbord of vaudevillian satanic heavy metal that won the newly reborn band popular acclaim and exposure the likes of which they would scarcely have dreamed of in the early 80s. That album was comprised wholly of songs written between 1982 and 1986, recovered in the form of various rehearsal-room demos and live recordings and re-recorded with the benefit of modern production. Not content to have the songs written in their youth be their only legacy, the newly revived Hell have insisted that they are not just a relic of a bygone era but a living, breathing entity concerned with writing, recording and touring in the here and now. Thus, they’ve challenged themselves to directly continue from a masterpiece written three decades ago – not only that, but a masterpiece composed in large part by founding member Dave Halliday, who died in 1987. It’s potentially a recipe for one of the oddest instances of the sophomore slump of which I’m personally aware.
“Curse and Chapter” is actually a mix of new and old songs (guitarist Kev Bower laid out which songs are which in some online promotional material. Dave Halliday’s direct influence is limited to only a couple of writing credits this time around (as well as “Harbinger of Death,” a cover of a song by Halliday’s pre-Hell outfit Race Against Time), with the majority of the album penned by Bower. There are also some musical credits for guitarist Andy Sneap (also of English thrashers Sabbat and the man largely responsible for this reunion) and lyrical credits for singer Dave Bower (brother of Kev). It’s a melting pot that makes it difficult to tell where the old ends and the studied, self-aware facsimile of the old begins.
Even though the internal dynamics of the band are considerably different here from “Human Remains,” Hell are quite insistent upon continuity with the 2011 record (in fact, they literally pick up where it left off – the brief spoken word section which ended “No Martyr’s Cage” here opens “Gehennae Incendiis”), not only sticking to the same sound and lyrical content but lacing the liner notes with references to it and even sampling part of “Blasphemy and the Master” during the opening of “Deliver Us from Evil.” It’s an album that’s acutely aware of its own legacy and makes a conscious effort to be “Human Remains 2: Electric Boogaloo.” It’s unfortunate that Hell seem to want to belabour “Curse and Chapter’s” connection to its predecessor; it’s an excellent album by any reasonable metric, and if it didn’t insist on the comparison so much, I might not have found myself fixating on the ways in which it’s just not quite as good.
It’s not the fault of the musicians, that much is sure; the band throw themselves at the material with abandon. Andy Sneap and Kev Bower come armed to the teeth with riffs, varying from the venomous, stabbing rhythms that give an incisive edge to tracks like “The Age of Nefarious” and “Land of the Living Dead,” through sleek, Maiden-style dual harmonies (there’s a real early Iron Maiden feel to the instrumental “Deathsquad” in particular) to slow, chunky, militant chugging chords. Their overall affect is of a darker, more demonic and unhinged take on the NWOBHM sound, in places flirting with mid-paced thrash metal (think “Ride the Lightning”-era Metallica or “Practice What You Preach”-era Testament). Bassist Tony Speakman asserts a significant presence independent of the guitars, adding a bit more meat to Hell’s already-muscular sound. All manner of synths and samples augment the songs with an infernal cinematic flourish, from the screams of the damned that open “Something Wicked This Way Comes” to the ominous chanting on the more stately tracks like “Darkhangel” and “A Vespertine Legacy.”
Also firing on all cylinders is Dave Bower. The vocalist has a background as an actor on stage and TV under the pen-name of David Beckford; not being familiar with his work in this capacity, I couldn’t say whether it directly informs his performance in Hell, but he has a charismatic, showy, somewhat histrionic quality to his delivery that puts me in mind of broad theatrical acting. He varies between a ragged snarl and a quavering, slightly hysterical high wail, mixing and combining the two in unpredictable, off-the-wall patterns. He adds a demented twist to Hell’s songs, giving the impression of a malevolent imp or a mad court jester with his recitation of playful, sardonic lyrics that generally represent some variation of “no, really, fuck Christianity.” His technical proficiency is immaculate, but more than that, his voice is distinctive and memorable in ways that the frequently samey clean singers in modern metal so often aren’t. “Curse and Chapter” likely wouldn’t have half the personality it does without him.
While the performances are excellent across the board, “Curse and Chapter” nevertheless doesn’t feel as extravagant or as explosive as “Human Remains.” The songwriting is still fluent in its management of riffs and solos, verses and choruses, expedient in its pacing and varied enough that each track feels unique in shape and structure. And yet, it’s just more timid in what it attempts. “Darkhangel” and “The Vespertine Legacy” are imposing, but they stop short of the epic stature of “Blasphemy and the Master” and the “The Devil’s Deadly Weapon.” “The Age of Nefarious” isn’t quite the rabble rousing opener that “On Earth as It Is in Hell” is. “End ov Days” is violent and aggressive, but not to the same extent as “Let Battle Commence.” It’s a milder album, the songs making fewer bold moves, and there are more moments where it feels like the band are marking time rather than trying to thrill or dazzle us. It sounds, in short, like what it is; a group of musicians in their 40s and 50s trying to recapture the exuberance and virility of songs written in their teens and 20s and not quite getting it. It might be telling that the two tracks that I enjoyed best – the fist-pumping “Land of the Living Dead” and the scornful “Deliver Us From Evil” – are the ones which have Dave Halliday as a credit.
Still, some perspective is necessary here: “Curse and Chapter” is disappointing only with reference to the album it follows, and Hell still have ten times the impact, the personality and the vivacity of most new metal bands. It’s a step backwards, but it’s only a small one, and from a starting point that was far ahead of the pack anyway; criticising it for simply being “very good” more often than “genuinely extraordinary” feels churlish. Andy Sneap and Kev Bower have acquitted themselves well; Hell have a promising future ahead of them as an ongoing project, and if I feel slightly deflated by this release, it’s probably my own fault for just loving “Human Remains” too damn much. “Curse and Chapter” may be, in large part, a facsimile, but it’s a facsimile made with enough love and care that it’s impressive in its own right.
01) Gehennae Incendiis
02) The Age of Nefarious
03) The Disposer Supreme
05) Harbinger of Death
06) End ov Days
08) Something Wicked This Way Comes
09) Faith Will Fall
10) Land of the Living Dead
11) Deliver Us From Evil
12) A Vespertine Legacy