By: Will Pinfold
Hobbs' Angel of Death | Facebook | Twitter | Bandcamp |
Hobbs’ Angel of Death has been a labour of love for guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Peter Hobbs on-and-off since 1987, when he released the rough but glorious Virgin Metal Invasion From Down Under demo. In ’88 everything seemed to fall into place when the band was signed to Steamhammer and released their self-titled debut album which remains a masterpiece of black thrash metal that should be in the collection of anyone who loves Hell Awaits, Seven Churches, Obsessed By Cruelty and their ilk. Thereafter, things went somewhat pear-shaped, with the only follow-up being 1996’s strong, but barely released Inheritance after which the band went on hiatus again until 2003. In the interim period a lot has changed; in metal – especially black metal – terms, Australia is no longer the backwater it was in the 80s (at the time the only other Australian thrash band with any kind of international profile was the mighty Mortal Sin) and black metal is an established style (or styles) of music and not, as it mostly was then, an intense kind of thrash with lots of Satanic imagery.
So what does Hobbs’ Angel of Death have to offer in 2016? Well, the same thing it offered nearly 30 years ago, basically – good tunes, tons of passion and the feeling that somehow all other versions of metal are offshoots of this and not the other way round. ‘Virgin metal’ may be a peculiar description, but Peter Hobbs meant it; metal in its pure form, unsullied by extraneous musical styles, but not constrained by perceived genre boundaries. Although he didn’t reject the black or thrash metal labels entirely, it’s worth remembering that that is not how Hobbs himself described the band back in the day and, despite its (at the time) controversial Satanic elements, what makes Hobbs’ Angel of Death such a classic album is the way the power and skill of the band were a means to an end – delivering the songs in the most effective way possible – and never an end in themselves. Which brings us back to Heaven Bled (released in Europe by High Roller Records, elsewhere by Hells Headbangers).
Boiled down to its essentials, the album is a series of what could be described as old-school thrash songs, with heavy riffs, catchy tunes, melodic solos and Hobbs’ powerful semi-musical bellow (think an Australian-accented Tom Araya c. 1986 without the shrieky bits). But as mundane as that may sound (if you’re not an 80s thrash fan), the Hobbs magic is there and effortlessly elevates the album vastly above the level of retro thrash nostalgia. As with both of his other albums, Hobbs’ perfectionism (this is reportedly the third recording of Heaven Bled as the first two versions proved unsatisfactory) pays off. The songs are honed to perfection and as the album rushes by each track sounds like a standout. Chosen at random; ‘Final Feast’ has a storming riff and overflows with dynamic power, ‘Suicide’ features a well-integrated nod to Mayhem’s ‘The Freezing Moon’ and the atmosphere of a song like ‘Drawn & Quartered’ simply can’t be faked. For all that it sounds straight out of the 80s with its catchy and oddly laidback opening riff, blasting verse and ‘Live Undead’-meets-Immortal-esque central part, it all comes together seamlessly, laying waste to its influences and outclassing peers and newcomers alike. That said, Hobbs isn’t stuck in an 80s timewarp; songs like ‘Heaven Bled’ itself convincingly incorporate stylistic elements of (relatively) modern black metal within the framework of the songwriting; which as ever remains the most important factor in the band’s work.
Of course, it isn’t beyond criticism; Hobb’s vocals very much remain a matter of taste, being neither raw by 90s-and-beyond standards or musical or by 80s ones; but what fans will want to know is that his bellow is as belligerent and clearly enunciated as ever. Also, at twelve songs, it’s a fairly long album and although each song is strong enough to stand alone, by the end the fact that almost every song goes through slow/mid-paced parts to fast passages and back again (perhaps a hint at how long they have been honed by the writer), although brilliantly handled, tends to become a bit samey as pure sound. A shame in a way, because the final, very angry ‘Abomination’ as good as any song here, but feels anticlimactic simply by virtue of its construction – but it has to be said, even alone its not quite as iconic a closer as Hobbs’ Angel of Death’s classic ‘Marie Antoinette’.
It’s good to have them back, hopefully it won’t be another ten years until the next one.