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A battle between metal's hell & rock's purgatory - 86%

Gutterscream, October 5th, 2017
Written based on this version: 1986, 12" vinyl, Raw Power

“…I've thrown off the shackles, broken the bonds…at last this beast has been unchained…”

Former members of middleweight metallers Rogue Male, an unknown Brute Force, and early hardcore punk staples The Shapes, The Varukers and seminal legends Discharge (and not the all-friggin'-female AC/DC tribute band or the '69 flick of biker vengeance) assemble into a UK quartet lounging around their debut’s back cover shot garbed in some sorta punk/glam mix n’ match, as if they were caught near a minor collision between King Kobra’s and (early) Overkill’s dressing rooms. That’s alright, ‘cos even while you’re sure this visual is a valid clue to Hells Belles’ sonic identity, it becomes evidence that withers away quickly due to an aural presentation that unfolds into a surprisingly stranger situation.

One song hears ‘em siphoning a similar energy to what fuels Too Fast For Love’s more rollicking numbers, however in HB’s hands it’s slicker, more condensed and embedded inside lotsa confident, non-hostile speed-picking. Exceptional aggression levels keep things spinning. Singer’s clearly no slouch. Sounds like these guys have their act toge...FWAAAP!---well slap me silent, that's a backhand I didn't see coming two songs in. With third track "Desire Me" I can't tell if a ninja snuck in with a different record or if a wig had flipped in the records song-separating dead wax ‘cos suddenly we’re listening to something like Teeze’s more vibrant vibe combing the knots out of a commercial hairdo that's attached to Stakk Attakk-era Wrathchild. Shortly afterward is when the realization sinks in.

Yep, Hells Belles suffers from split personality trauma to a degree I haven’t heard since Spartan Warrior’s Steel n’ Chains strode into the arena looking to smooch its adversaries as well as when side one of Virgin Steele’s debut wanted to pitch a cozy two-man tent. It’s any record’s irrefutable game changer that can obscure and/or endanger a band’s vision like scattershot. Also, in addition to bringing unsolved riddles to a band’s motivation and guesswork to their inspiration, it can mess with heaviness levels; while HB’s heftiest isn’t the deep-hearted heavy that thrash bands compete with, they do tune up more than a few flashes of high-scale potency throughout this slab. Naturally, they tune down just as often.

Well, regardless of the group’s origin of inspiration, it’s evidently a friend to high energy protocol as well as high-charting prospects, the first of which will have you forgetting all about the band's tight leather trousers even without heat-seekers “Overload”, “Screaming for Mercy”, “Storm Break Loose” and “Hell’s Belles” distracting you from the sights. Some will naturally chalk up the many moments spent as a multi-alarm fire brigade to intrinsic Discharge residue under direct guidance from Peter “Pooch” Purtill (original HB drummer Garry Maloney was a Discharge member as well, from ’81-’84, but may have been gone even before the ’84 demo), former guitarist for the early hardcore/punk/crossover act that shoved a large calloused hand into the percolation of cheerless, revolutionary/activist/non-conformist juices that’d be found coursing through so many rising metal bands of the early/mid ‘80s, from Anthrax, Metallica and Celtic Frost to Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror and Sepultura. Makes total sense, particularly when speed-bent aggression is the obvious backbone for almost half the disc, however since Purtill only spent like a year with Discharge, from ’83-’84, and since this aggression possesses nowhere near the street-wise, bulldog-snorting grit Discharge knowingly dragged behind ‘em, you gotta expect Quigley, Spiv and Holder to factor in somewhere (and yeah, I guess Maloney’s early contributions coulda stuck as well, like D-Beat, the drumbeat he’s given credit for inventing). In any case, this is the persona that hit the street running, sorta like equally rambunctious, though less trebly Alcatrazz, refined and speedier Vanadium, more versatile Have Mercy or less versatile Mephisto (Ger).

The album’s second absolutely essential and equally incensed personality takes the form of a fully streamlined itinerary leading directly to the mainstream market where Hells Belles smooths edges, polishes textures, oils joints, files down teeth, sweetens breath, and plays tight like a card shark. Moreover, it’s where the other half of Hells Belles go to feel at home, and doesn’t include a lawn chair overlooking the drag strip. More about this fundamental side of the four-piece in a few…

…’cos first we should touch upon the importance of quasi-eclectic “Looks Like Love” and how its presence in the make-or-break opening slot is smack dab right where it oughta be. Naturally, with the album’s initial spin there’s no knowing what’s in store, but upon learning more about Hells Belles and their night and day agenda, it’d become clear that “LLL” is in fact the album’s afternoon wake up call that can take us everywhere the rest of the disc has staked its claims. In other words, “LLL” is the band’s epicenter of personal sound, right up in front so you don’t have to go searching for it. Still not gettin’ it? Don't blame ya.

“Looks Like Love” is a double time gallop that’s seamlessly fluid with the spower** metal realm it elegantly trounces and then rebounds from. Its accomplished vocals swiftly abandon natural mid-highs for earthier tones to accentuate a brief impromptu interlude and the fidgety calm that accompanies it. Its vocal harmonies often agree to be deliberately off-time with the music and effortlessly in sync with each other, and easily ride the chorus as if on a saddle. Its distinctly-handled bass scoffs at the assumption it's only to keep time and enjoys dancing to its own bubbling scenario whenever possible. Its solo quickly adapts to a dual guitar hoax, thanks to some mixing board magic, and even while the effect expands the song’s depth by illuminating the band’s muted, quasi-epic proclivity, it never undercuts the guitarist’s originally-planned language or talkative style. So inside the ‘ol nutshell of significance, “LLL” is aggressive, palatable, instinctive, polished, heavy, practiced and, as the first track on the disc that does its job of setting first impressions straight, ultimately saleable – the result of a rare peace treaty signed by two distinct, goal-separated musical practices that often fight for dominance despite the equal favor they’re held in, which here translates into HB's one and only track that has united to cease fire, work together gathering ideas swimming just off the shores of both brainpans, coat the choicest spots in an alloy of equal styles, sign the thing, let dry, and rejoice in a most successful end game.

Now, since Hells Belles, much like a proud father, still smiles at both identities, their rejection of commercial subterfuge is more understandable than admirable (where does one hide five songs on a ten-track disc?), which is the unofficial art of sneaking a few straight, hit-hopeful rockers/AOR chattel onto an album, preferably under bangers’ noses and usually right on the still-smoking skidmarks left by the last popular tune. Then with three of the b-side’s five songs mostly unconcerned with the financial and theatrical plight of the local shaghead who bought this thing, he’s given the choice to either skip these minnows or give ‘em a shot at finding something in his psyche to hook. Obviously you gotta listen to ‘em at least once, correct? Well, this particular shaghead did just that and uncovered an additional thing or two about Hells Belles; within a few spins he concluded the album’s general foundation relies on these above ground-styled songs as much as the ones reeking of burnt rubber, like b-side opener “Barricades”, a ditty that borrows some Raven-esque/”Take Control” inflection and temperament (albeit softer-served) to spice up its chorus. Edible “Long Legs” is the finale that survives its crucial post where lasting impressions go to die by coasting the middle lane with just enough cool to putter by.

Then with an even more focused beeline to the hit parade yet is completely commercial, yet admittedly infectious “Strangelove”,one of those unusually valid ‘hits’ that shoulda scored at least a little chart time (key word: shoulda), but has been ignored by the universe for one dumb reason or another – loose yet fashionably roused tempo, uncluttered atmospheric keyboards, expertly overlapping vocal harmonies, softly urgent chorus staying calm in its own smooth glide, and a pop hook n’ roll feigning restlessness that's being held just in check a.k.a. sum ingredients that only matter now to the future three or four yearly explorers who’ll trip over this thing and be awake enough to look back and find attraction and/or intrigue for its sanitized, moderately goth-centric, Andy Warhol lip-licking sleeve.

Guest keyboardist Lyndsay Bridgwater, no stranger to the Diary of a Madman and Speak of the Devil tours, earns her studio wages for the day(s) as she proves integral to more than enough tracks (like around half), which should possibly warrant some better-than-guest positioning, especially if they wanna properly fill these songs out live.

Well, gonna crawl out on a limb here and rank this on the high side after accounting for its confidence, execution, originality, prowess and some other metaphysical nonsense, and alternately for the five song specimens that are at times barely moondusted by arguably peripheral metal properties. Moondust, however, is useless when sprinkled on hard rock songcraft and its delivery of the final product(s), which in this case are contagious and enjoyable enough (if you let 'em be) to warrant some forgiveness. What we’ll likely never know, however, is had Hells Belles issued a timely follow-up lp (same year ep Barricades boasted one new track that still eludes me), would it have been fully swayed by the morphed magic of “Looks Like Love” to end their supposed internal struggle and convert their muse entirely? Yes, yes I know, another burning question haunting our dreams left and right.

In other unrelated news, the sound and style of this album for some reason strikes me as how the California act Nitro shoulda sounded on their ’89 debut minus overrated whistling teapot, Jim Gillette.

Fun Fact 8’;,fd: Hells Belles tried self-honoring their sound by branding it ‘rogue metal’. Heard of it? That’s ‘cos it quickly went ignored without a tear, but hey, it beats Raven’s magnificent, dead-on-arrival ‘athletic rock’ proposal, last seen somersaulting promptly to its demise within the scene’s flabby belly folds.

**speed/power

“…bursting into flames, it's all systems go…”