The sudden end of then skyrocketing Portland, Oregon heavy metal band Spellcaster in 2017 came swift and final enough to stop many a dedicated fan in their tracks. As the pieces of that melodic and quickly escalating star-powered heavy metal band were kicked under the rug in a moment so rose the greatest gift life experience can offer in the form of inspiration and opportunity. That inspiration struck songwriter guitarist/vocalist Gabriel Franco (ex-Seventh Gate, ex-Spellcaster) towards a moment of great catharsis that’d quickly erase the helplessness felt after having his band ruptured away in the night. ‘Mana’ itself is the power of nature, the energetic force of all things, and this constant motion reminds us that we primates are in no way separate from our environment. At its deepest level of meaning the gothic rock/heavy metal dramatics of Franco‘s Idle Hands is a commune with human nature and a broken-hearted confrontation of the ruinous wolf held at bay within men by societal constructs.
Ever since I’d received Idle Hand‘s righteous ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’ EP in 2018 the whole question of gothic rock, post-punk and its often awkward placement in the heavy metal sub-genre space over the last three decades had sent me on a bit of a hunt for gothic metal origins. There isn’t any particular alignment of stars that’d clarify why any form of ‘gothic metal’ would seem to be profoundly ‘on trend’ and then off again from one generation to the next. Trivial as it was to explore the conclusion is remarkably bleak in that the biggest names in goth rock, post-punk and associated 70’s and 80’s rock music breakthroughs are sold as mood and feeling, entire bands merely used as capsular marketing terms without any particular intention or influence from those groups. When I was a child it was Tiamat, Katatonia, Paradise Lost, and Sentenced (among many others) rolling in the stink of goth era Dead Can Dance, The Cure, and the Sisters of Mercy. Our 90’s balls rebuked their descent upon hearing the smarmy schlock of European death metal bands fumbling through feigned gothic metal cheese back in the day. That movement was born from doom metal reaching as far back as the late 80’s where outliers like Fear of God and Stillborn would serve as strange mutants lost in the limbo of the early 90’s that’d touched upon goth melody too quietly to be remembered. Today the endless wave of modern post-punk revival is so prevalent that it is its own sub-genre to some and that includes swipes towards new wave and primitive forms of gothic rock. From Soft Kill to Grave Pleasures all the way up to heavier epics from In Solitude and Rope Sect few if any of these bands falter when creating the right mood and retro-spiritual sound but virtually none of them can write a pop rock song to save their lives. Therein lies the magic of ‘Mana’ as Idle Hands have not yet put a song to tape that isn’t catchy, repeatable, and full of detailed points of interest that deeper enrich with familiarity.
In returning to the ‘Don’t Waste Your Time’ EP after a few months with ‘Mana’ it is clear that part of the excitement felt surrounding that release came from a considerable amount of vocal effects and a more directly 80’s speed/NWOBHM sort of guitar tone. It’d made sense at the time to see it as a much more competent take in relation to Sentenced‘s stylistic goals on ‘Frozen’; A heavy metal/goth meld that was generationally appropriated in both cases. For that reason the jump over to ‘Mana’ initially felt tuned towards late 90’s alternative rock by comparison thanks to the one shared track between both releases (“Blade and the Will”) and a huge reduction on studio effects and reverb in general. At some point all of that false spaciousness would have made ‘Mana’ appear less than confident and more ‘green’ than Idle Hands actually are, so this stripped down and slightly more subtle rendering does end up sounding confident and satisfyingly rugged compared to the EP. I do think omitting “By Way of Kingdom” from the full-length was a bit of a bummer but there are just as many anthemic kicks within the length of ‘Mana’ to make up for this.
Last year I’d described Franco‘s vocals as “Jaz Coleman-meets-Pelle Åhman” and “beyond confident” which still applies here though I will say that the shouts, wolf howls and harmonization litter ‘Mana’ with twice the personality previous. The vision for the vocals and their sometimes complex delivery is never so immaculate or ambitious that Franco appears to be some sort of modern rock god but rather an acceptably emotive metal singer who doesn’t indulge in typical metal cheese such as vibrato abuse. Satisfied as I am with the vocal side of things the guitar work throughout ‘Mana’ is a mixed bag in terms of interest. Though each composition does its best to balance classic heavy metal and gothic hard rock guitar techniques the open chord progressions begin to feel like a very repetitive (early) Fields of the Nephilim album played at double speed. Otherwise a good mix of the finesse and energetics is shared between Franco and lead guitarist Sebastian Silva. If you’re more inclined towards the pure metal side of things I’m not sure there are enough guitar theatrics here without an interest in gothic rock and would direct you towards the other post-Spellcaster project Silver Talon instead. With Idle Hands there is always a hook and the song is in service to that memorable moment and no doubt even the mention of ‘gothic’ anything will send many folks puking into the sink but, I think Franco is a fine songwriter who manages well on this impressive first full length.
In terms of conveying a full narrative while establishing a distinct style that is boldly delivered and memorable Idle Hands arrives in its own league and with a confident buzz bubbling up under it. From the howling, group-shouts, and double-bass slapping of “Nightfall” ‘Mana’ makes its case for a full listen that’d serenade (“Jackie”) as often as it’d resort to highway-ripping escapism (“Cosmic Overdrive”) and by the time Side A ends you’ve probably heard the best of it. Those first six tracks are all gold and I doubt most folks would even think to flip the LP over, instead opting to just dig through that first half until the needle breached its way through. “Give Me to the Night”, is a fine example of why Idle Hands works at all, those anthemic and campy 80’s sensibilites stand out like an island in a sea of blank and timid atmospheric rock/metal permutations. As I said before there are plenty of kids playing ‘cock out’ 80’s metal today but a very select few will ever write a song you’ll remember and Franco has a strong-assed resume already. Now I wouldn’t say Side B sinks ‘Mana’ or but it dims the lights a bit and focuses on more subtle flourishes for interest and the melodies aren’t so melodramatically achieved. Each track has its moment: The solo at the end of “Dragon, Why Do You Cry” and the inevitable break-up of “A Single Solemn Rose” both bring some of the strongest moments of the album but the periphery of Side B feels somewhat redundant as the limbo of the final 10 minutes approaches. The title track does punch up the spirit of ‘Mana’ a bit before it ends so, it isn’t a full-on droop towards the finish line but the experience would have been satisfying around 35 minutes rather than 40.
Much as I do enjoy post-punk and its many permutations there isn’t much gothic anything I’d touch beyond the first few Fields of the Nephilim records and maybe ‘Within the Realm of a Dying Sun’ as a lot of the late 90’s Century Media gothic metal ruined any hope of that. With that said I don’t take any issue with the gothic rock style used here as stylistic informant for an energetic guitar driven heavy metal album. There is some difficulty in conveying why one thing would be acceptable on paper and the other not but no doubt a quick spin through ‘Mana’ will speak for itself. In spinning this album countless times I couldn’t say that I loved any one part of it but there are several undeniably strong moments throughout. The value of ‘Mana’ is quickly evident if it isn’t dismissed outright and as much of that value comes from hook-filled guitar driven heavy metal as it does from the maudlin rock melodies and jangling goth guitar strumming. It isn’t entirely my ‘thing’ but it is a good thing nonetheless. Moderately high recommendation. For preview the combo of “Give Me to the Night” and “Nightfall” should have you howling at the moon to start but “Blade the the Will” b/w “A Single Solemn Rose” will be the songs worth reapplying your black lipstick for.
Marks and angles, gods and angels. 3.75/5.0
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