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My first exposure to Hexx was through the “Under the Spell” album, and their catchy hyper-active power/speed metal style, bordering on thrash, got me hooked instantly since it reminded me so much of another opus I had discovered a bit earlier, Laaz Rockit’s “Know You Enemy”. Then I got a hold of the debut, but I didn’t like it as much as it lacked the verve and the aggressive guitar work. I don’t know why I didn’t show any big interest in their other feats at that time… It was a few years later when a friend of mine tested my knowledge of the genre by playing me an excerpt from an album. He got me that time as I couldn’t tell who that was, but they reminded me so much of Coroner, my favourite thrash metal band, that I got really angry for not already having them in my collection.
Yes, that band was Hexx, the “Quest for Sanity” EP (1988), one of the finest examples of technical thrash the US scene has ever produced, the overall approach uncannily reminiscent of the Swiss masters’ same years’ “Punishment for Decadence”, mostly in the music, but partially in the vocal department as well. The guys had made a giant step forward compared to their last opus towards much more complex music exhibiting considerable growth as musicians. I tracked down the next two works immediately, but the “Watery Graves” EP (1990) only contained one brand-new song, the title-track, the other two being remastered versions of songs from “Under the Spell” made to sound more aggressive in order to fit the newly acquired more brutal ways of execution.
And here we are facing the “morbid reality”, the album reviewed here. Since not a Hexx’s effort had sounded the same as the previous one at that stage, I wasn’t sure whether the band had preserved the technical style from “Quest…” on this one. The opening title-track starts with a pompous orchestral intro which doesn’t tell much, but before you know it a whirlwind of brutal chaotic riffs begins, an overwhelming amalgam of thrash and death that sees the guys paying attention to what was going around the scene recently; this is a technical hyper-active concoction siding with the works of Hellwitch’s “Syzygial Miscreancy”, Vacant Grave’s “Life & Death”, Nocturnus’ “The Key”, and Atheist’s “Piece of Time”, all released a year earlier. Said title-track is a stylish dishevelled melee of fast overlapping riffs in the best tradition of Hellwitch, the more sensible leads trying to find their way through this mazey chaotic “salad” which suddenly disappears at the end to give way to a grand doomy closure. The vocals have become way more brutal losing whatever vestiges of actual singing they had previously, but match the intense delivery which is propelled forward by “The Last Step”, another violent technicaller which marginally more linear, less exuberant rhythm-section also recalls Incubus’ “Beyond the Unknown”. Things get serious from here, though, with “Birds of Prey”, a marvellous progressive opus which starts with virtuous gallops the band “winking” back at their thrashy roots before a not very decipherable labyrinth of shifting amorphous riffs inaugurates, bringing the complexity beyond “Unquestionable Presence” even; some immaculate technical thrashing appears as well in the second half, and combined with the dazzling leads makes up for one of the highlights on the whole US 90’s scene, not without the help of the gallops that return towards the end to wrap on this most eventful saga.
“Blood Hunter” is a short spastic thrash/deathster the guys moshing with vigour taking it easy on the technicality that is brought back in its full bloom on “Fire Mushrooms” which commences with strangely uplifting rhythmic leaps that become more officiant and heavier until the staple intricate arrangements take over in league with great melodic progressive build-ups and less dynamic, almost doomy, but equally as interesting riff-patterns in the second half. “Persecution Experience” pours a lot of pounding drama bordering on virtuoso pyrotechnics the guys bracing themselves for another engaging progressive metal showing which gets suitably death metal-decorated with increased amounts of technicality piled on top of screamy chaotic leads and even more complex knots of frenetic riffage served for “dessert”. “Watery Graves”, already heard on the preceding EP, is a frantic jumper that doesn’t settle for a single rhythm at the beginning with jarring super-technical crescendos rising out of the blue to “impede” the more officiant mid-tempo march, the resulting combination wrapped on by the last in line heavy dramatic pile-up. But that’s not all since there’s a “Spider Jam” provided as a finale for the “Spiderman” comics’ and cartoons’ fans, as the film franchise hasn’t been started yet, a surreal trippy extravaganza with the leads doing the major “damage”, the guy showing himself as capable as any of the Shrapnel performers also “flirting” with the main theme from the cartoons at the end.
The jam is a frivolous, jocund way to close this album, a nice unexpected touch by the way, but the rest is one of the most interesting technical/progressive “excursions” made at the time, a solid unwavering tribute to the more thought-out side of the thrash/death metal hybrid which was massively popular in the early-90’s on both sides of the Atlantic. The band looked well-equipped to enter the death metal arena on a full-time basis, and would have completed a journey that not a single other band in history have: to go all the way from hard’n heavy to death metal, from the lightest to the most extreme aspect of metal. Along the way, however, the guys never put a foot wrong, and each stage of their evolution had produced something really good the culmination being the album reviewed here. An impressive achievement that even may have a follow-up in the new millennium as the band are back together with a new demo (“Up from the Graves”) out in 2013 which saw the return of Dennis Manzo, the singer who took part in the debut recording sessions. Death metal obviously isn’t going to be the order of the day this time, but the fans would still be delighted to hear the good old energetic power/speed metal reflected in four infectious epic hymns.
A re-release of their first two albums followed suit in 2016, the package also featuring some of their very first demos from the early-80’s when the band were called Paradox, plus the mentioned new demo. A nice revisit of their back catalogue which would hopefully continue with a tribute to the final chapter from their early days, this part that instilled a most attractive, compelling slab of “morbid reality”.
Sometimes a band chooses to change their style, and a few have done so quite successfully. We all know some good examples. Typically bands that are able to do it have something extraordinary going on, such as Black Sabbath with their change from Ozzy in his glory days to the genre-defining Dio. It's hard to deny a change from great to (potentially) greater. In the case of Hexx, the same cannot be said. Just 3 albums into their career (and a couple of EPs), they decided to go from a more traditional metal style to thrash. The results are competent and frantically-crafted chaos. But ultimately it falls short.
Fair disclosure: I'm much more inclined to like a well-crafted, traditional heavy metal album than I am a speed/thrash metal album. Hexx's previous effort, the bombastic and raw "Under the Spell," is one of the forgotten, true metal classics from the era. Its intoxicating blend of raw riffs and Dan Bryant's soaring, screeching vocals will always have a place in my heart. I would have enjoyed another album such as "Under the Spell," but alas it was not to be.
Morbid Reality sees the band hashing out a series of meaningless riffs, one played right after the other with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Presiding over the mayhem is Clint Bower, pulling double duty on guitars and vocals. Bower's throaty shouts and screams are fitting for the music, if a little generic. The lyrics speak of very familiar themes running through the thrash scene at the time. Antisocial and dark, Morbid Reality is largely an ode to the ills of society and its effects on an apathetic, disaffected population.
After listening to this, there isn't one song that sticks in my head for more than 10 minutes. Yes, it's raging and frenetic, but it's also unmemorable and generic. At the time a lot of bands were moving in this direction, so Hexx simply blended in with the crowd.
It's a very sad state of affairs indeed. Hexx could have continued along the same path as "Under the Spell" with fantastic results. The album was a big step up from their first. There was no reason to expect that the next would be worse. This was an up-and-coming raw, powerful metal outfit that could blow the doors off any joint where they played. Morbid Reality is just confusing. There was absolutely no reason to do this. It's an unwelcome change, and it killed what would have been a great band.
After acquiring guitarist/vocalist Clint Bower and deciding to abandon the more traditional, power metal roots of their sound from No Escape and Under the Spell, Hexx produced a pair of EPs from 1988-1990 that highlighted the band's transition into pure thrash metal which inevitably also drew forth an influence from prototypical death metal acts of the day. Where once they had flown with eagles across a phenomenal 80s landscape, they now had become just another face in the crowd of increasingly angry thrash bands trying to push a boundary. Neither Quest for Sanity nor Watery Graves found much appeal for me, since the first was full of mediocre tracks and the latter was just a couple updated tracks from the first two records, played in a heavier style, with one new piece (which also appears on this album).
Hexx got a break when Century Media, then a young label with much potential, picked the band up to produce their first full-length in the thrash field, the uneven Morbid Reality. This is a ferocious effort, knocking the piss out of the two ill-fated EP releases, and show the band finally living up to its new direction. That's not to say its a great or even very good album, because its quite forgettable, but the level of musicality and aggression are well balanced and Bower's sick vocals truly carve out a piece of your humanity as they spit and sneer across the album's eight tracks. Needless to say, this is the fastest material Hexx had ever produced, and the guitars and bass were simply off the hook, whether its Bill Peterson's manic low end presence or the nigh on constant ability of Dan Watson to shred in the midst of the swerving blitzkrieg of rhythm riffs.
Gone for good were the higher pitched vocals and elegant traditional metal influences. Morbid Reality is more of a Sadus, Holy Terror, Hellwitch, Rigor Mortis, Dark Angel or late 80s Nasty Savage than it is melodic or formulaic. Cruel sounding, competent, and more compelling than anything the band had come up with since 1986, it's 40 minutes of concentrated mayhem which feels like you've been hit by a locomotive going 10x the recommended speed. Tracks like "Birds of Prey" or "Persecution Experience" are bewildering in their ceaseless bludgeoning, with snarled and growled vocals that are well within the early death metal category. But far more interesting is the nuclear charged "Fire Mushrooms", with its use of clean, effected vocals, or the title track, which opens with low piano tones and then explodes into some of the fastest ass Bay Area thrash that could possibly have existed by 1991.
As mentioned, "Watery Graves" is present here from the prior EP, but it plugs into its surroundings rather effortlessly. The album actually closes with a "Spider Jam" that features several themes from Spider-Man shows that the band have decided to expand on. Its a nice jam and often feels like Voivod during their Dimension Hatross/Nothingface releases, though its primarily an exercise in jamming and dowsed in fluent leads. Strangely enough, it fits well enough within the album's frenetic blueprint of insanity.
If you're one to truly pine over a Swallowed in Black or Illusions, Terror and Submission or Darkness Descends, then there may be something in Morbid Reality to satisfy your rabid thrashing death impulses. It was certainly among the faster thrash/speed or thrash/death to come out of the west coast during the dawn of the 90s, but sadly the songs do not really deliver so much once you're head stops spinning around on its rested spine. Granted, this is an improvement over what they were churning out in the years post-Under the Spell, and there is some measure of promise that might have one day been fulfilled had the band continued here, but despite the energetic effort and higher visibility of their new label, this one was all too quick to fade into the background, and I can't conceive much cause to complain about that.
Hexx has been known to explore the metal scene, switching styles, with their music. They started out as a NWOBHM band, but then later converted to thrash metal. By the last album, which is Morbid Reality, there are thrash influenced riffs with growled vocals. I don't know if you would call it death metal, since death metal isn't my area of expertise. But the vocals are growled, sometimes very brutally done. Towards the end of the album though the vocals tend to lighten up and go in and out of growls.
This is just you're straight out heavy thrash metal. The riffs are fast at points and other times it switches into a slow, but powerful rhythm. Best example of this is on the song Birds of Prey, a little after the three minute mark. Guitars on this album land a lot of cool riffs that are pretty technical at times, and at other times straight forward power chords are used.
What helps this album reach its supreme of trashiness is the drums. The drums do a great job of keeping everyone on time while switching tempos very rapidly. One song on this album could switch tempos after every other measure. So a good drummer is needed to do this. But what is rather prominent is the straight forward blast beats. The themes of the song are mostly of death and dying. Though I think it is okay to say these guys could use war and weapons of mass destruction as their over all theme.
This is one of those albums that you listen to and then put away. If you keep listening to it over and over it will blend together as one. Not a bad album though. Songs to check out are: Morbid Reality, Birds of Prey, Fire Mushrooms, and Watery Graves. I think all metal heads should check it out, especially if you like Sodom's first couple albums. That is probably the best comparison. Oh and don't let the piano intro to Morbid Reality throw you off...this is a pretty fast album.