Beyond the Boundaries of Sin
posted on 9/2012 By:
The Hellwell project came on seemingly out of nowhere, but once details spread, it came as no surprise to fans of the band’s most noteworthy member. After all, Mark “The Shark” Shelton’s immortal Manilla Road has always had strong roots in 70s proto metal and hard rock, so adding the type of keyboards you might have heard in that era to his music seemed like a capital idea. (Manilla Road themselves have had the occasional keys included, just never in a featured capacity as they are here.) This new band – and it is indeed that – is a collaboration of Shelton on guitar and vocals, namesake and Playground of the Damned bassist E. C. Hellwell on keys, and Johnny “Thumper” Benson on drums. (The latter two also share bass duties.) The fruits of their labor are compiled in Beyond the Boundaries of Sin, a debut album that feels fresh despite over 30 years of Shelton music already in existence, and one even that surpasses the last Road album in ambition and quality.
Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is an immediately rewarding album, but it has a deceptive side. The first impression, which is understandable given the presence of Shelton’s immaculate lead guitar and unmistakable vocals, is that this is just Manilla Road with a keyboard / organ player involved, but that is far from the complete story. This album, particularly the early tracks, has a mildly haunting feel to it, undoubtedly provided by the silent horror movie vibe of the keys/organ, which adds just enough top end creepiness to allow the less rocking, more plodding tempos to take full effect. The keys, and this more open tempo, also allow the vocals more room to work within, and in that department Shelton truly excels, both in terms of delivery (more smoky than nasal) and of melodic choices. His work during the chorus of excellent opener “The Strange Case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes” really adds to the slightly mysterious, ever-so-sinister vibe that the album holds, and gives way to the first of many instantly memorable moments within these 47 minutes. The utterly rad, almost medieval sounding bridge in “Eaters of the Dead” and the keyboard hooky chorus of “Deadly Nightshade” are two others, not to mention Shelton’s frequent guitar solos, which are as unique and freakishly stylin’ as ever.
The second half of the album is taken up by the “Acheronomicon” trilogy, which, if you buy the deluxe version of the album, is expanded upon in a 60-page (!!!) story book. Musically, this trilogy gets slightly closer to the post-millennial Manilla Road sound, in that it somewhat eschews the sinister vibe of the first few songs in favor of an epic feel. (The chorus and riffs of “Tomb of the Unnamed One,” for example, would have felt right at home on Gates of Fire.) However, these particular songs still wouldn’t be complete without the addition of Hellwell’s keyboard skills. Part two, “Heart of Ahriman,” features an instrumental back-and-forth between Shelton’s soloing and answers from the keys and rhythm guitar, all in a way that enhances the song, solo, and presence of the keys alike. The trilogy and album then make a hugely epic finale with “End of Days” (to the tune of almost 14 minutes). Beginning with a keyboard / fake flute intro of Middle Eastern-melodies, the song grows gradually from an initially doomy vibe through faster, more intense sections and an eventual explosion into fully furious metal maelstrom, spinning solos and keys all over the place while bringing that initial melody back at a key climactic moment. It’s hard to make such a lengthy song feel quick, but Hellwell does so through a walloping, bombastic execution of heavy metal excellence, as they do throughout the album.
You don’t necessarily need to be a devout Manilla Road fan to enjoy Hellwell, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, particularly when it comes to Shelton’s voice and minimal production. After all, there will be plenty of knee-jerk opinions saying that this is just Manilla Road with an organ, even if that’s both incomplete and inaccurate. In truth, Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is a fresh combination of known ideas that have never quite been tossed together in this manner, and a different angle offered from a metal legend. As a massive fan of Shark and his work, this album tickles me just about as sweetly as Mr. Hellwell tickles the keys himself, and really has me hoping this will be another full time band that can run parallel to the great Road. Kudos, gents.
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