"All's well that ends Hellwell," you might well say, in the process ripping the quote from the bleeding throat of William Shakespeare, and twisting it into overwrought rock journalese. This is because there is something ultimate, conclusive, and terminal about this first doomladen release from this Manilla Road side project. Hellwell will not be able to surpass or even match 'Beyond The Boundaries Of Sin', as this is a record that clearly drives as far as it can go in its chosen direction, in the process exhausting and destroying all possibilities for further elaboration.
The name Hellwell comes from Manilla Road keyboardist and bassist Ernie Hellwell, and includes Manilla Road main-man Mark 'The Shark' Shelton on guitars and vox, Jonny Thumper Benson on drums and bass, plus support from Bryan 'Hellroadie' Patrick and Josh Castillo. Only Andreas Neuderth from Manilla Road's latest line-up seems to be absent.
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So, why not just stamp it Manilla Road? Is it because they've at last realized that being named after a muddy track leading to the unglamorous capital of the Philippines was never very Heavy Metal? Perhaps. The story behind the album centres on Ernie Hellwell's habit of scribbling dark H.P. Lovecraftian epics of evil in his spare time and showing them to his band-mates. Earlier writings apparently inspired lyrics for former Manilla Road songs. The difference is that this album places Hellwell's writings at the core then sonically extrapolates a consistently bleak and evil universe from them.
The first half of the record tentatively explores this new direction, with the most obvious musical differences being more prominent keyboards, stronger atmospherics, and an enhanced sense of dramatic counterpoint.
'The Strange Case of Dr. Henry' plays around with hard riffs, swirling organ, and dramatic changes in the vocal department as if to evoke different characters or perhaps demented schizophrenia. 'Eaters Of The Dead' starts tighter and more immediate, but just when you think this tale of seaborne cannibalism is going to get too rigid halfway through, a fatter, juiced-up riff is unleashed creating room for organ notes and further guitar ornamentation.
'Keepers Of The Devils Inn' and 'Deadly Nightshade' show similar skilful changes that keep the music fresh as the lyrics continue to drag us down into a morass of evil and despair. The latter mixes tight thrash riffing with spacious doom Metal influences that erupts into NWOBHM-style guitar breaks. Amidst the excellently orchestrated clutter and clatter of influences, Shelton's voice contrasts by sounding drained, anaemic, and zombie-like.
The second half (mentally you flip over the imaginary vinyl) is an all-out epic in three lumbering and awe-inspiring parts that appear to take their name from the River Acheron, the mythical river that separates the world of the living from that of the dead.
First the clanging and buzzing riffs of 'Acheronomicon: I. Tomb Of The Unnamed One' build a powerful sense of expectancy, as if we have stumbled across the ruins of Atlantis. In 'Acheronomicon: II. The Heart Of Ahriman', which appropriately name-checks the Zoroastrian God of Darkness, Hellwell's swirling organ flourishes and Shelton's echoey vocal eerily coalesce to recreate the magic of The Doors' Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison, although the track gets a little cosy this close to the Armageddon that is too follow.
They save the best for last. 'Acheronomicon: III. End Of Days' starts off with sci-fi sound effects, burbling sonic textures, and a haunting Middle Eastern melody that snakes and weaves up to the first crashing waves of looped guitar feedback. This guitar fuzzball is then woven and unwoven alongside meandering keyboard lines over a slow thudding beat. Psychically the effect is similar to the dark, lugubrious chime of a funeral bell. This is a 14-minute song so Hellwell have to work hard to inject new life into it, but they do so, boosting the energy levels with a new riff kicking in and clashing with what's already there, creating a melee of potent noise that skilfully unwinds over the rest of the song, as squalling guitar notes, dense riffing, organ notes, and Shelton's haunting vocal all bob to the surface.
The trouble with epics is that they sometimes fall off the edge of the world. In this album Hellwell have explored and exhausted every possibility, and they have reached a dead end. But I mean this positively. True prog-inflected Heavy Metal is a Gotterdammerung, and if all can be consumed in one all-embracing performance, which leaves no stone unturned, no blade of grass standing, then job done. In this album, Hellwell have emphatically done the job they set out to do, with the result that they've effectively put themselves out of a job and painted themselves into a very black and evil corner. Oh, well, back to Manilla!