Even with a fractured landscape, there are bands that persevere for ages without gaining the acclaim many believe is deserved. Though hyper-categorized, too many bands fall under each label for all of them to make an impact. It's unfortunate, but reality cannot be denied. Certain artists, no matter how many albums they make, no matter how much influence they wield, will always be legends of the underground.
Mark “The Shark” Shelton is one of those men, the driving force behind Manilla Road's decades long run as one of traditional metal's most dependable, yet forgotten bands. In the right circles, they are revered for the influence in creating an American metal scene that never bought into the need for faster and heavier music at every turn. Manilla Road is an institution, but one that finds itself almost like a secret society. It's impact is felt, even though no one may know its name.
And now we add Hellwell to the ledger, as Mark Shelton continues pounding out traditional heavy metal, so much so that he needs a second band to bring his vision to fruition. Hellwell is a different beast than Manilla Road, but the comparisons are both inevitable, and deserved. With the same creative force behind both bands, the changes in window dressing aren't going to be enough to make them feel like completely separate entities.
Keyboards are the major difference, taking on a prominent role in the mix, turning Hellwell into an unforeseen hybrid of Manilla Road and Deep Purple. It's not a combination that comes naturally to mind, and the resulting music doesn't give a satisfactory answer whether it's a noble experiment or not. There are moments throughout the record that make effective use of the extra layer of sound, but there are as many where they seem superfluous, tacked on because this band needed definition.
“The Strange Case Of Henry Howard Holmes” roars out of the gates with growling organ sounds that aren't dissimilar to Jon Lord, underscoring the true story of a murderous doctor who built a hotel designed to kill its visitors. The story is fascinating, and a perfect subject for a metal band to tackle, but the song can't live up to the material. It's decent, but lacks the killer instinct necessary to be what it should.
Keeping in the tradition of Manilla Road, the sound of the album leaves much to be desired. Everything sounds dusty, slightly distorted, as if your speakers have been blown out. It's par for the course, and not the least bit out of character, but it does distract from the music. The guitars especially buzz with such ferocity that they overpower the keyboards, and make it difficult at times to make out what the riffs are actually doing.
“Deadly Nightshade” is a good traditional metal song, and the organ kicks in at just the right time to enhance the drama, but there's so much noise it takes great focus to enjoy the moment. Only when the riffs slow down and utilize empty space does the sound get tempered enough for the album to reach its potential. The rest of the time, you're left wondering what the songs would sound like with a production that didn't sound like a fifth generation cassette from twenty years ago.
It's a shame, really, that Hellwell wasn't used as a laboratory for Shelton to change up the sound of his recordings, because there's some good material that deserves to be heard in a better light. It doesn't match the power of legacy of Manilla Road's best works, nor is it as epic as that band's more recent efforts, but the scope and sound of roaring organs paired with the music is an interesting takeoff on the traditional metal sound. It's one that warrants further exploration, but in a manner that highlights what these elements can do, which is the exact opposite of “Beyond The Boundaries Of Sin”. It's a decent album that shoots itself in the foot at every turn.