Quite a few years back a friend of mine invited me over to his flat and, over a couple of beers, jammed on Kataklysm. The effect was electric and I found myself picking up their back catalogue and checking them out live. Hail of Bullets remind me of the excitement I felt upon experiencing ‘In the arms of devestation’ thanks to a ruthless proficiency shared by the musicians and a steely-eyed ambition that has seen the band tackle the savagery of the Eastern front, the tragic Warsaw Uprising and now the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire. It’s a bold move that could easily fail if it wasn’t for the fact that Martin Van Drunen is a WWII buff who tackles the subject matter with a mixture of matter-of-fact detachment and the utmost certainty of someone who is absolutely secure in their knowledge of the topic.
Opening with the brief and atmospheric ‘eve of battle’, a cinematic piece overlaid with snarling guitars that sets the scene nicely, the band launch into a ferocious ‘operation Z’ with a flurry of drums (courtesy of the obscenely talented Ed Warby) and hyper-fast guitars (Paul Baayens and Stephan Gebedi) which are likely to take your face clean off if you’ve pumped the volume too loud. The solos around the mid section are also great hinting at Slayer initially before shifting into a nicely harmonised attack straight out of Judas Priest. It’s an exhilarating track that gets the blood pumping and is guaranteed to set the pit afire when the band hit these shores to support the album with live dates. Better still is ‘the Mukden incident’ which hammers you with a double kick-drum assault and flaming guitars which benefit from a beautifully crisp production and tone making them sound simply huge, with the nearest comparison being the best moments of Arch Enemy. ‘Strategy of attrition’ is an epic number which makes use of a slow, grinding, almost ‘south of heaven’ riff to underline the severity of the subject matter and the main riff is one of those memorable guitar riffs that is liable to take on near-mythical proportions with the bands following (much as ‘raining blood’ has done with Slayer fans) it really is that good. ‘Full scale war’ goes one better by starting with a treacle thick guitar riff that then expands into a furious attack of limber-fingered glory. It stands as an epic centre-piece to the album and it is here that the throbbing bass (Theo Van Eekelen), pounding drums and scorching guitars all display the talents of the musicians responsible. It’s an awe-inspiring slice of viciousness that would challenge the very best of the genre and although you can hear the influences seeping in here and there, there is no denying that HOB have their own unique take on the death metal blueprint.
Dispensing briefly with subtlety and the need to build tension for the sake of the narrative, ‘Guadalcanal’ is an absolutely storming number that is utterly irresistible. A snarling, tearing blast of fury and fire it features a powerful central riff and multiple tempo changes that keep the interest and the adrenalin flowing. ‘On coral shores’ is a slower number, blistering in its intensity and possessed of a vicious selection of riffs as well as a demanding vocal performance which is satisfyingly raw. By contrast ‘unsung heroes’, whilst still maintaining the band’s epic heaviness, has a sense of melody thanks to the skilful guitar leads whilst still pummelling the listener into nothingness. ‘Tokyo napalm holocaust’ is an amazing track which slips into Celtic Frost territory thanks to a shimmering guitar part and a riff that is almost doom in its overwhelming weight and power. Slow, enervating and filled with a blistering rage it is one of the best tracks of the album and the avant-garde styling helps HOB to stand far out from the pack. ‘Kamikaze’ has a more Slayer feel to it than anything else with squealing guitars, ludicrously fast drumming and a vocal laced with hate offering up a slightly deranged punk feel to proceedings. Final track ‘to bear the unbearable’ is another melodic, mid-paced monster that closes the album out with another nod to the story-telling aspect of the album. Indeed, so well paced and organised is the disc that to sit and listen through to the whole album is like watching a film with each section flowing perfectly into the next. Certainly it would be a tragid error to break this up on an MP3 player or whatever – this is one death metal album that needs to be heard from start to finish and, such is the quality of the record, you’ll be unwilling to skip a single moment.
Hail of bullets have succeeded in creating a modern, powerful, beautifully produced death metal epic. The music is perfectly suited to the subject matter and skilfully arranged so that the album has a narrative feel to it even if you occasionally lose the lyrics in the densely packed arrangements (and as HOB point out in their interview the lyrics are readily available in the booklet anyway). Intelligent, powerful and played with a passion and precision that mark HOB out as serious contenders for the death metal crown as well as with enough nods to the old school to entice fans of Celtic frost and the like this is an epic, adrenalin charged ride through history. Treasure it.