Whatever cyclothymic disorder the greater consciousness of man ever suffered it is easiest to see the present day as the height of mania among men who’d program their minds to forget the high-trauma of their day-to-day, every day. The ‘Killing Machine’ at the end of the 1980’s surely came as a defining moment for the British heavy metal ‘mainstream’ but it was just a ripple among the trenches of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal mania that inspired many to up their showmanship while others would focus on songwriting prowess. Whether or not you see that division of fluff and substance in NWOBHM causing a division from 1980 on, the rapid dissolution of sincerity in the wave beyond 1984 is typically seen as a mirror to the rise of United States (and Canadian) speed metal in defiance of glamorous strip-struttin’ Los Angeles cocaine rock. There is some satisfying fantasy to the idea that any true movement possessed Priest fans to band together in the west, taking up arms with Lenny’s meth-metalero approach in hand, and begin thrill-killing one trend with another. The rocket from NWOBHM towards speed metal still bled liquid metal blood coast to coast however you sever it, though. As convenient as it is to compartmentalize every band into fantasized movements and die-hard followers at every point, there was always an exceptional outlier that helped any fabled scene thrive; Oakland rockers Lääz Rockit went hard instead of hair (see: ‘No Stranger to Danger’), Avenger cranked up the jock-tempo for ‘Blood Sports’, and most famously Riot bucked a whole host of trends and created their own niche a couple of times throughout the 80’s. Today we see metal within countless sub-genres, themes, and era specific resemblance but none of this compartmental thinking seems to celebrate songwriting as much as stylized sound design. By naturally honing in on a transitional period of heavy metal history, between the heavy rock of NWOBHM’s first push and the North American speed metal of the early 80’s, San Francisco based heavy/speedsters Hell Fire bring a timeless boogie to push through the even horizon of the traditional heavy/speed metal boon of the late 2010’s.
You’ve heard it all before though, right? You’ve already got the splinters of Gypsyhawk (Night Demon and Gygax) covering NWOBHM-meets-Thin Lizzy influenced heavy music and supercharged bands like Haunt have that merger of British heavy rock and post-NWOBHM speed metal down to a science. I could list at least thirty bands that might gear most classic heavy metal fans above a neutral mark but few offer an exciting edge that stops short of pure thrash metal. It’d be fair to lump Bay Area boys Hell Fire in with a few of the modern greats of speed metal but they’ve ramped up their dueling influences to a decent enough point of distinction with their third full length ‘Mania’. They might’ve been too straight-faced and melody-lite on ‘Metal Masses’ (2016) but ‘Free Again’ (2017) was a bigger, ass-shaking rocker with a far superior guitar performance that shocked a lot of NWOBHM heads into fandom, now on this third full-length they seem to have focused on nailing what made their idealized classics, classic.
“Warpath” has everything you’d expect from a post-‘Kill ‘Em All’ speed metal record with every moment aiming for a hook or a spandex-ripping lead and they’ve hit that mark without relying on the faux-reverb mush that echoed through ‘Free Again’. ‘Mania’ brilliantly manages to sound like Bay Area speed metal as you’d remembered it, but not at all how it actually was. Don’t lean into the obvious, though, as this isn’t Metal Church revisited, Exodus (well, “Mania” main riff aside) revised, or even ‘Show No Mercy’ rearranged but, instead dig up the beating heart of early California speed metal from the right dried-up font: Griffin‘s ‘Flight of the Griffin’, Trauma‘s blistering ‘Scratch and Scream’ and perhaps the best comparative piece Los Angeles band Savage Grace‘s debut ‘Master of Disguise’ which had that same NWOBHM punch to it. Well, we’re in the right era and mindset but throw in an armful of White/Gorham era Thin Lizzy records for good measure, and then a hint of Enforcer circa 2010 (see: “On the Loose”) to get the more complete picture of Hell Fire‘s sound. They rock as much as they thrash and almost never at the same time.
The alternation of boogie rock and heavy/speed metallic riffing kind of speaks to the whold ‘pitch’ of the bands sound and influences and you’ll feel it most distinctly on Side A, or the first five tracks. ‘Thundersteel’ did something similar as Riot transitioned into their Mark II alignment but here I get a bit lost as “Mania” drops me in 1985, then “On The Loose” sounds like a particularly good Hypnos song, then “Born to Burn” sounds like a band that could have opened for the ‘Breaking the Silence’ tour, and the ballad “Transcending Evil” straight up just doesn’t work. I won’t go track by track but the alternation of 70’s hard rock/heavy metal joggers and early 80’s speed metal tracks left me wanting more of a conscious blend of the two styles. Two bands worth of ideas appear shuffled together in too-unison order and Hell Fire‘s third album reads less like ‘two sides of the same coin’ and more like two different bands when everything is arranged in binary alternation; It wasn’t noticeable at first, a casual listen is nicely varied, though a more critical ear set to ‘Mania’ found it wandering choppily between swinging rock grooves and ripping heavy metal as a full listen. I know this will sound ridiculous to folks who want both worlds represented, but there are plenty of bands creating successful fusion otherwise. What, if anything, holds it all together?
Jake Nunn‘s (Hysteria, Sentinel Beast) vocals continue to be a strong asset for Hell Fire as his classic 80’s metal approach to wailing is evocative of both intended eras of influence without overpowering the bulk of ‘Mania’ with any needless theatrics. The guitar work is high energy delivered with a great sense of drama that never loses its heavy metal muscle; For my own taste this is where Hell Fire excel most and immediately make up for the relative plainness of their previous record. I see, well, I hear improvement in every aspect of ‘Mania’ with consideration for the bands discography and though it is a strong heavy rock/speed metal jam I’d say there is yet a ‘next level’ Hell Fire are still just approaching as they refine their approach to songwriting. Moderately high recommendation. For preview I’d recommend starting with “Born to Burn” and “Mania” then jumping down to the Maiden ’84-esque “Knights of the Holy” but don’t make up your mind until you’ve heard the balladry of “Transcending Evil”.
Blinded by the blast. 3.75/5.0
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