After a nearly 25 year hiatus, "Human Remains" reminded the world of the greatness that never came to be so many years ago. Hell had finally arrived, nearly three decades later, thanks to a few new members and a dedication to their craft. But with any band past, present, or future, there is always the fear that that first major release is a flash in the pan; a stroke of good luck that will never be replicated. Having that many years of inspiration behind one album's worth of songs might have provided an above average result. But with the release of their second album, this five piece has even more at stake, and certainly more to prove to today's discerning (read as: picky) metal fan. Guitarist Andy Sneap, who helped to resurrect the band for their 2011 return, has seen many bands live and die in his times producing. But with "Curse & Chapter," Hell make a bold statement about a laundry list of topics. Not the least of which is, without a doubt, the relevance of a band a quarter century later. There is no sophomore slump to be found.
Having picked up right where "Human Remains" left off, the symphony of fire and brimstone that is "Gehennae Incendiis" provides a suitable backdrop for the album, housing a similar dynamic to that fabled first release. Because when "The Age of Nefarious" breaks through the walls, there is no doubt who you are swinging your hair to. To say, once again, that vocalist David Bower has a voice all his own would be an understatement, as his unique cackling cry his places in the vocal spectrum seldom touched. But as much of the sonic spotlight as he commands, he is matched drop for drop by brother Kev Bower and Sneap, who work a set of near miracles on guitar and keyboard. The solo work is even tighter than before, allowing for a sound that radiates outward. It isn't all thrashing guitars and wild vocal melodies, though, as "The Disposer Supreme" showcases that extra taste of the theatrical in every movement. There is something almost classical about what they do here, but not in the sense that power metal has poisoned us with. Instead, it is the shifting of tempos and vocal acrobatics that resonates most clearly. But never in all seven blaring minutes will you find so much as a single disjointed second; from rolling bass line to whining guitar riffs, every note fits the proverbial glove.
If there is one downfall to this point on the album, it's that the first trio of songs are, perhaps, too good for their own good, setting the bar unattainably high for the latter two thirds. Yet, as easily as those words fall out of our mouths, "Darkhangel" raises that bar even higher. Contained within one track is a lead riff that is as catchy as any you've ever heard, a vocal performance that won't soon be forgotten, and a rhythm section that is as surgically precise as any you've witnessed. And yet that somehow does not do the track justice. It's genre bending, without a hint of irony. And while our distaste for covers contained on an album proper is well documented, the cover of Race Against Time's "Harbinger of Death" fits all too well into the arc of the disc. If there is something about Hell that can't be touched, it is their ability to build an album of tracks that support each other. A cover made their own, followed by "End ov Days," is a match made in Hell. The winding riffs on display here only bolster the lyrical content. Every slamming snare and tom drives one nail further into the coffin, with accuracy and detail that inspires awe.
The rhythm section team of Tim Bowler and Tony Speakman, on drums and bass, respectively, may not be on the covers of magazines, but their work is of the superstar caliber. Tracks like "Deathsquad" could not exist without their attention to detail. While it always seems poised for a vocal breakthrough, it is left as a stunningly atmospsheric and haunting instrumental that induces a wave of chill with each press of the keys. With a wealth of memorable riffs and tracks at their fingertips, it only makes sense that "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is added to that list. It is the perfect blend of everything the band does well, wrapped in a neat five minute package. On the mic, Bower is a wonder, alternating by his high pitched, beyond opera, and menacing spoken verse. Not only does the instrumental mirror his intensity, but also his range. With barely a beat in between, "Faith Will Fall" kicks the door down with another driving riff, as Bower wails "hail to the hypocrite," over the top of it all. Agree or disagree with the premise, it is a glaring social commentary being laid out before you. But unlike Bill Maher or the degenerates from Fox News, there is a massive beat backing it all.
Make no mistake; this album is as long as it is powerful. By the time the last trio of songs comes into sight, beginning with "Land of the Living Dead," you have been thoroughly pelted with distorted guitars and punchy percussion for about 45 minutes. But having come this far, the reward is the music itself, with another easily accessible, if not blisteringly fast, track. Focusing on the solo that comes just before the two and a half minute mark, you get a taste of how deft and imaginative Kev Bower, Sneap and Speakman truly are, darting in and out of each other with no threat of a crash. But taking the avant cake, at least within the four walls of this album, is the sermonizing "Deliver Us From Evil." The choir of voices in the chorus is merely the wick on the dynamite, exploding in a fierce piece of guitar work. Speakman's bass may not be the lead here, but it carries the same weight. The second half, driven by a great bass, guitar and drum groove, could be the result of a great jam session, or a carefully calculated experiment. As a closer, "A Vespertine Legacy" is everything you would want; as a track on the album, it is something more. Some songs, for better or worse, only work because of their placement. This one, however, could fit into any slot on the album and still be as massive. The crawling breakdown after the five minute mark would tear any venue to the ground.
We were fairly blown away by what Hell had done on their first release after reforming a mere two years ago. "Human Remains" was, and still is, one of the albums that we recommend in conversation with metal fans from around the world. And it seemed to be too good to be true, maybe even too good to ever be replicated. And truth be told, there was an eerie, reserved excitement when "Curse & Chapter" made it's way to our doorstep. One could say we were prepared to be disappointed. Instead, what you have here is a statement album. What it says, though, depends on which angle you come from. It speaks to you in different ways, through sound and shape, tone and color. It's complex structuring is quintessential Hell, with every song immediately recognizable, without ever being one dimensional or feeling repeated. That alone would be an enormous victory... but there is so much more. Now a full 26 years after disbanding in 1987, Hell is more than just a triumphant return to form; they are forging new ground, with an album that may be the year's best.
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