Hellwell – Beyond the Boundaries of Sin
Posted by Terrible Certainty Zine
In the early ‘90s Mark Shelton, Manilla Road mastermind and the father of epic metal, wanted to step outside the bounds of Manilla Road and record a solo album. Unfortunately, his record label insisted that the album be released under the Manilla Road moniker, even though the material differed considerably from the band’s style. So 1992’s The Circus Maximus has always has always existed as a step-child of a ‘Road album. Two decades later Shelton once again felt the itch to stray outside the purview of his brainchild and try his hand at a different shade of metal, and the result is Hellwell’s Beyond the Boundaries of Sin. The irony is that now in addition to a Manilla Road album that doesn ‘t sound like Manilla Road, there’s a Manilla Road album with a cover adorned with a different name.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming Hellwell is a Shelton solo project. After all, it is the namesake of bassist / keyboardist E.C. Hellwell, who also played on the last Manilla Road album, Playground of the Damned. Hellwell co-wrote nearly all the music with Shelton, and the lyrics of the second half of Beyond the Boundaries of Sin are based on his Lovecraft-inspired short story Acheronomicon, which comes packaged in the vinyl and limited edition cd versions of the album offered by High Roller, while the regular cd version is through Shadow Kingdom.
That said, Beyond the Boundaries of Sin sounds a hell of a lot like a Manilla Road album. The most obvious difference here is the prevalence of the organ, which plays a significant role in each song. It did take a moment to become acclimated to such a different element of Shelton’s familiar songcraft, but it serves the material very well, lending a classic, out-of-time sensibility. And that’s key to the other significant difference from Manilla Road: the lyrical themes. Rather than the yarns of epic fantasy Hellwell weaves dark tales of the macabre. Tracks like “The Strange Case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes” and “Keepers of the Devil’s Inn” are based on the true stories of some of America’s earliest serial killers, Dr. Herman Webster Mudgett and the Bloody Benders, from Shelton’s own Kansas. “Eaters of the Dead” is based on the Michael Crichton novel, and the album as a whole is dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft, Robert. E. Howard, and “all of us that have continued to contribute to the Cthulhu Mythology.” E.C. Hellwell’s organ accompaniment to Shelton’s familiar guitar and vocal styles helps support the early historical content as well as harken a classical horror ethos, and Shelton’s narration is one part Vincent Price and the other Doctor Moreau.
Much of the material would fit in seamlessly with recent Manilla Road output and sounds very much like a companion to the darker themed Playground of the Damned, although this is an overall stronger record. “Deadly Nightshade” is a remnant of the Playground material and is one of two tracks that features guest vocals from the Road’s Brian “Hellroadie” Patrick. Even though Hellwell is Shelton through another lens, Beyond the Boundaries of Sin still gives you everything you love about Manilla Road. The songs are perhaps at times a little more direct, but there are still ample twists and shifts, and they’re amplified by the character provided by the nontraditional emphasis on the organ. Album closer “End of Days” in particular is a true stunner in Manilla Road fashion, full of Shelton’s amazing lead work and patented epic metal construction.
I recognize I’ve not spent much time focusing on what the album sounds like, but I am assuming that the reader is familiar with the work of the brilliant Manilla Road, and therefore I’ve concentrated on how Hellwell compares. And as you’ve read, the answer is incredibly well. Beyond the Boundaries of Sin is an ace. You’d expect quality from Shelton and crew, but this album exceeds expectation and contains some of Mark Shelton’s best work in some time. Beyond the Boundaries of Sin fits in nicely as a unique companion Manilla Road album, and you’ll not hear anything else that sounds quite like it. A definite contender for album of the year. (9/10)