Without a doubt, Hell Fire are one of my favorite recent discoveries in the world of underground heavy metal. Their 2016 debut platter, Metal Masses, absolutely blew me away with its intoxicating blend of faster/heavier NWoBHM fare meets Kill ‘Em All-era Metallica. Now, just a year and a half later, the Bay Area brawlers are back with their all-important second album, entitled Free Again. There have been a couple of changes in the Hell Fire camp in the interim. Most notably, guitarist Jon Mendle has departed and has not been replaced. Don’t fret, though: even as a four-piece, Hell Fire have retained their twin-guitar attack, with vocalist Jake Nunn strapping on a six-string for this album to join Tony Campos. And Mike Smith has taken over the drum throne for Arturo Rios.
After a week or so of intense listening, I have reached the conclusion that Free Again is a worthy successor to Metal Masses in every respect. The same ingredients that supercharged the debut to minor-classic status are present here: the lightning-fast riffage from Campos, the ability to inject dynamics into the songwriting such that the tunes twist and turn seamlessly into sometimes-unexpected realms, the knack for melody and catchiness in the guitar riffs and leads, and of course the stellar vocals of Jake Nunn. The guy is such a talent, showcasing a high-pitched, raspy tone that is always powerful, emotional and tuneful. Nunn really sounds like no one else, although his banshee wails remind me of Chris Cornell at times. Now, I am no Soundgarden fan, but Cornell had one hell of a voice, so this is high praise. That said, while the ingredients have remained the same, the recipe on Free Again feels a bit different to me. It seems like Hell Fire are diminishing their thrash influences on this record (almost no gang vocals, fewer all-out speed passages a la “Sirens of the Hunter” or “Battlecry” from the debut), and instead doubling down on the old-fashioned NWoBHM (early Maiden, especially) vibe. Don’t get me wrong: Free Again has plenty of muscle and clout, and tracks like “Wheels of Fate,” “Beyond Nightmares” and “Destroyers” will kick you in the teeth with hammer-down speed. But overall, this is slightly more of a midtempo, rockin’ affair. Also worth mentioning is that Free Again is an altogether more compact, focused listen than its predecessor, clocking in at a tight, filler-free 8 songs and 42 minutes, versus the 11 tracks and 53-minute running time of Metal Masses. And it could be my imagination, but the lyrical content seems more personal and emotional this time. It’s hard to be sure because unfortunately the digipak doesn’t come with a booklet or lyrics, and Nunn (for all his gifts) isn’t always the easiest to decipher.
Perhaps the album’s biggest highlight is also its most atypical cut, the titular “Free Again.” This song kicks off the disc with two minutes of four-on-the-floor rock’n’roll that grooves and swings in an almost stoner-ish kind of way. It’s cool and all, but utterly unexpected for Hell Fire. Just when you start to panic that the band have completely lost the plot, “Free Again” abruptly shifts gears into a ripping part that is reminiscent in feel and impact to Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” What follows is perhaps my single favorite musical passage of 2017, the guitars weaving a spine-tingling melody, the rhythm section pounding furiously, and truly inspired lyrics delivered to soul-searing perfection by Nunn. Every word resonates closely with my innermost thoughts, as Nunn implores us to “Shed your possessions that made you a slave,” tells us “No, you don’t belong, no, you never did,” and says “The rest of your days, you’ll do what you want, because there is no other way.” That’s freedom. Brilliant. On the other end of the spectrum, “The Dealer” is a magnificent mid-tempo rocker that could have originated in England circa 1982. There’s maybe even a touch of Thin Lizzy in the shimmering twin-guitar swagger on that one. “Live Forever” might be the song that combines all elements of Hell Fire’s sound most effectively, from the speedy riffs to the spectacular chorus, Nunn pouring out his soul, and then a superb NWoBHM riff kicking in halfway through. Special mention also goes out to the epic, 7-minute closing track, “End of Days,” which actually begins with haunting, quiet guitars and excellent, subdued clean vocals before yielding to a grandiose chorus that leads into yet another uptempo, melodic part of the kind that Hell Fire executes so well. Then the big, emotional chorus kicks back in, and you feel the chills run down your spine. A fitting way to end a fantastic album.
Hell Fire’s influences may be well-worn and familiar, but I can’t think of anyone else today who has combined them in just this way. Free Again sees Hell Fire remaining true to what they are, without falling into the dreaded trap of stagnancy. The thrash-or-die crowd may be a touch disappointed, but no other old-school metalhead should be. The band have delivered another superb album and have cemented their position as unsung heroes of underground heavy metal in the USA. My only hope is that our scene will sit up and take notice. Hell Fire are too damned good and too damned special to be languishing in obscurity in the Bay Area while the critical darlings get invited to play Keep It True and hyped in social media. In a just world, Hell Fire would be receiving the buzz and the accolades both domestically and abroad. I’m doing my part. Now go do yourself a favor and buy Free Again, will you? And pick up Metal Masses, while you’re at it. You can thank me later. www.hellfiremetal.bigcartel.com.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~