I have some pretty strange thoughts while listening to metal. I try to share as many of them as I can here at THKD. I often wonder if anyone else has a thought process that is even remotely similar, and occasionally I’m validated via the comments section. This time around however, I think I’ve come up with something that will throw at least 99.999% of you for a loop. When I started digging deeply into long lost NWOBHM band Hell’s debut album Human Remains, there was one downright bizarre thought I just couldn’t shake. I thought of Sir Laurence Olivier.
I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days. – From Shakespeare’s Richard III
Before you send the men in white coats to take me way, take a moment to compare the two videos above. The first one is Hell’s video for the track “On Earth as it is in Hell” and the second is Olivier’s opening monologue from the 1955 film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Wondering what a dead Shakespearean actor and a heavy metal band have in common? The answer is simple. Drama. Hell vocalist David Bower brings it to Human Remains in much the same way that Olivier brought it to the silver screen. Not many metal vocalists possess a true flare for the dramatic that can be translated into a compelling performance. King Diamond, Rob Halford, ’60s/’70s Sabbath-era Ozzy and a handful of others can do it. Most can’t.
You see, Mr. Bower has something in common w/ Olivier (aside from being British, of course). Bower is a classically trained actor and he brings that theatrical experience to Human Remains. As far as I can tell from researching Hell, this is Bower’s first time fronting a metal band (stepping in for the dearly departed David Halliday). To listen to his performance, you’d think he had been doing this for decades. Like Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III‘s title character, Bower’s vocal performance on Human Remains is suitably dark and sinister, but also extremely varied and complex. When was the last time you heard a metal singer bringing such a nuanced and refreshing approach to vocals? Surprisingly, Bower’s lack of a traditional metal musician’s background is a huge advantage, as he brings a skill set and influences to the table that might as well be from another galaxy, imparting Hell w/ a unique vocal identity (it should be noted that I have yet to hear the nearly three decade old(!) Hell demo/EP material that Human Remains is based on, so I have no idea how Bower’s vocals compare to Halliday’s).
For selling my divinity a blackened angel I shall be – From Hell’s “Blasphemy and the Master”
By now some of you have probably watched the two videos and have come to the conclusion that both performances are a little on the over-the-top side. This is because as both metal fans and consumers of popular culture, we are inundated with mediocre and downright bad vocalists and actors. The fact that both Tim “Ripper” Owens and Ben Affleck have had successful careers speak volumes to this theory. We are so used to seeing lifeless actors limp through their films and hearing metal vocalists who bring absolutely nothing new to the table that we’ve become complacent, labeling anything extraordinary or even moderately outside the norm as OTT or “cheesy” as a result. Some extraordinary metal vocalists, such as King Diamond, get a pass due to their longevity, but one can’t help but get the feeling that if King Diamond had debuted in 2011 instead of 1982, he would be mercilessly derided for his approach. Back on topic, notice how Olivier effortlessly, alters the tone, cadence, volume and intensity of his voice throughout the Richard III monologue with a fluidity that is seldom seen in modern film. This is not OTT, this is real acting, a commanding performance that holds you in its grip. The same can be said of Bower’s vocals. He employs a nearly identical technique, adjusting his approach to suit the musical/lyrical peaks and valleys of Human Remains, making each song a compelling narrative. In other words, he sings his ass off and you had better pay attention.
It isn’t just Bower’s powerful presence that imbues Human Remains with an innate sense of the theatrical. The compositions themselves (including a song based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which also speaks volumes about Hell’s bizarro connection to classical theatre) are mini roller coaster rides, thanks to the dual-guitar pyrotechnics of original Hell guitarist Kev Bower and uber-producer Andy Sneap (who was also behind the boards for the album). Their stellar six-string work can best be described as “NWOBHM on steroids”, thanks to Sneap’s muscular production scheme, but the riffage is tempered with a progressive edge that sets Hell apart from the trad metal pack. There is also a subtle gothic/symphonic atmosphere that permeates Human Remains, thanks to the restrained, tasteful use of keyboards and eerie backing vocals (It’s interesting to note here that the majority of songs on Human Remains predate debut albums by the likes of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir by over a decade). If we’re sticking with the film/play metaphor and Bower’s vocals are the “star” of Human Remains, then it is easy to think of the music as the “supporting cast”. But make no mistake, the work of the rest of the band, as well as the quality of the songs themselves deserve equal billing, and it would be just as easy to compare Hell’s songwriting to Olivier’s mercurial performance.
If you’ve gotten this far through my rant, I’m guessing you’ve either come around to my way of thinking, or your concerns for my sanity have been fully justified. Obviously, I’m no theatre/film expert, so if any of you can expand upon or even refute my theories, I’d love to hear about it. What I do know is that just as Shakespeare is the quintessential British dramatist, so too is there something distinctly British about Human Remains, a stately yet headbanging quality that only British bands seem to fully possess (see: Cathedral, early CoF, the “Peaceville Three”, Maiden, Priest, et al.). You might call it “civilized frenzy”. It’s part Shakespearean tragedy, part Hammer Films gothic horror and part Black Sabbath-styled heaviness, and it bloody well works.
Even if you are ready to have me committed, I think we can all agree that Human Remains is one of the year’s most compelling and above all fun metal debuts. The fact that these guys were able to pull themselves out of the pits of obscurity after a twenty-five year layoff and release an album of this caliber is damn near mind-blowing. It will be interesting to see where they go from here and whether or not they can branch out beyond those ancient demos. Will they try to incorporate more “modern” influences? Will Bower alter his vocal approach as he continues to gain experience? Regardless of Hell’s next move, the bar has officially been set for traditional metal in 2011. Welcome back.