To say that I was less than enthused about putting This Is Hell's "Black Mass" on my 'to-do' pile is probably an understatement. The band's press speaks volumes about the prowess of this evolving hardcore crossover band that lays down sobering, realistic lyrics....snore. I felt like I read those exact words about Hatebreed in 1999. Which only made me more withdrawn from the album. After all, hardcore has never truly died, but the last decade has seen a precipitous fall in both quality and popularity of the once crowded genre. I wasn't sure I was excited to travel back in time to the days of Ken Starr, "The Phantom Menace" and questions about Mike Piazza's sexuality.
"Black Mass" taught me something, though; a cherished lesson that everyone learns for a moment but no one retains, continuing the cycle ad infinitum. That lesson was that now and again, I need to remember to pull my head out of my rectum and give things an honest chance.
What we have here as listeners is an album that is straightforward, lacking in complexity or subtlety. It is at all times rebellious, confident and carefully cynical. Returning to the roots of the some of the great, riff-based speed metal of old, This Is Hell copies not only those musicians' neck-bending hooks, but healthy skepticism of the society around them. The final brew is a combination of biting indictment, simple anger and crunchy, catchy guitar.
Where "Black Mass" truly delivers on its potential is in the music's tight delivery. There are only two cuts that crest the four minute mark, and the album doesn't waste time with wandering tangents or masturbatory musical explorations, which in this particular flavor are a detriment. The songs are swift, linear and decisive, landing just long enough to attack the listener's ears. The early days of metalcore could have learned a lesson or two from this album. “Black Mass” is actually of similar mind to an album from earlier in the year, Selfish Needy Creatures’ “The Hard Way.” It just has more pop sci-fi references. No joke.
Be careful not to confuse that swiftness of assault with an idea of sleek or streamlined music. A two and a half minute romp like "Mi Nombre" is just as ugly, punchy and ragged as many metalcore or thrash songs twice its length. The machine-gunned guitar of “Salt the Earth” is just as chuggy as in some of the early Anthrax material, or more recently, Five Finger Death Punch.
“Black History” is the record’s most impressive cut, tempering down and dirty metal groove with short, direct, digestible lyrical morsels. As a result, the pacing is excellent, and reminiscent of some of the later works of Unearth. Close to the album’s head, the excellent “Black History” sets the pace for several similar cuts later on, including both parts of the gang chanting “The Wars” and the bass heavy “The Reckoning.” While not tremendously varied, the songs here are agile, functional and enjoyable.
What holds "Black Mass" back is that it lacks what in layman's terms might be called a "holy shit" moment. While catchy and impressive in its simple musical message, "Black Mass" isn't so catchy as to stick to your ribs. Walking away from the album doesn't leave the listener with a satiated feeling.
Also, depending on how you lean in the hardcore/metal debate, you may not be a fan of the moments where This Is Hell gives in to their 'HxC' DNA. The chorus of the title cut is a little too sparse, being largely populated by the born-from-punk hardcore practice of scream-chanting, slowly. Normally, the album strikes a fine balance between the choral mores of hardcore and the style-over-substance standard of heavy metal, but there are moments when the boat tips and takes on water.
During the closing chapter of what has been a musically accomplished 2011, This is Hell's "Black Mass" is a deceptively good album, embodying all the underdog qualities of the 'little album that could.’ It is my worry that the album's thin production and lack of a truly identifiable characteristic will cause it to get lost in the sea of larger releases this year. "Black Mass" doesn't deserve that. This album serves as affirmation that the hidden gem still exists, waiting for some daring archeologist to unearth it. Give it some time if you've got the ear and the inclination.