Like many of you, I listen to a ton of old-school, traditional heavy metal. It’s my favorite genre and I’m chuffed beyond words that so many of the old masters and young whippersnappers alike are breathing new life into this time-honored style. In my travels, I come across many newer bands playing our beloved sounds of olde and doing it well, straight from the heart. I’m thankful for every last one of them, but it’s rare for a new band to knock me out of my chair when I hear their debut album for the first time (Visigoth and Night Demon would be examples of that phenomenon in 2015). That’s precisely what happened on this fine spring weekend when I took ‘Metal Masses,’ the debut CD from San Francisco’s Hell Fire, out of its digipak housing and gave it a whirl in my compact disc player.
Although Hell Fire are not really doing anything new (goodness gracious, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to traditional metal anyway), their combination of influences and the way they have expertly forged them into a pure, seamless, unified whole really doesn’t have any direct analogue. The five-piece infuse their music with prodigious amounts of speed, and more thrash influences than many of today’s throwback bands do. I hear some Artillery not only in the occasional “snake-charmer” riffs and melodies chosen by guitarists Tony Campos and Jon Mendle, but also in the raw but melodic vocals of Jake Nunn, who I swear reminds me of each of the Danes’ last two singers (Michael Bastholm Dahl and especially Soren Nico Adamsen). The gang vocal accents in cuts like “Sirens of the Hunter” and “Battlecry” fairly scream Bay Area Thrash, and the spectre of ‘Kill ‘Em All’ looms benevolently over the entire affair. But Hell Fire definitely are not a thrash band, cookie-cutter or otherwise. They also owe a huge debt of inspiration to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but it’s the faster/heavier branch of that revered tree rather than the laidback rockin’ wing of the party. Think bands like Satan, Jaguar, and Raven and you’ll be on the right track. No matter how fast and crushing Hell Fire get, they keep the melody in the forefront, using the twin axes of Campos and Mendle to devastating effect, hence the comparison to bands like Satan (who, in my humble opinion, wrote the book on the optimal way to marry speed with melody in a dual-guitar old-school NWoBHM-type context). And oh yes, there’s a little classic Maiden in there too, in terms of both guitar melodies, bass gallops and arrangements, on tracks like “Islands of Hell” or the instrumental break of “Soldiers of Sin.”
None of this effusive praise about Hell Fire’s sound and style would amount to much if they didn’t have the songs to back it up. But they do, oh how they do. “Into the Light” cries out for a single / video treatment, as the band ease off the accelerator for a few minutes to deliver a devastating hook and a massive vocal performance from Nunn. “Islands of Hell” and “Escape Purgatory” are the two seven-minute epics, and they have enough twists and turns, cool riffs and catchy bits to keep the listener mesmerized and headbanging throughout. “Metal Masses” conjures up Metallica’s “Whiplash” in energy and vibe of the main riff, but veers off in a more melodic direction as well. Even the “Excelsior” instrumental is entertaining and worthy. But the band are absolutely at their best with the fast, crushing, catchy fare like “Sirens of the Hunter,” “Soldiers of Sin” and “Battlecry.”
Bottom line is that Hell Fire have conjured up a staggeringly good debut from the flames of Hades. It will easily be in the running for my best albums of 2016. Fans of Striker, Spellcaster, Night Demon, etc., check ‘em out. Record labels and festival promoters, what are you waiting for? Hell Fire deserve to be heard, with their exhilarating, life-affirming ‘Metal Masses’ album sounding vibrant, fresh and familiar all at the same time.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~