Will there be a better heavy rock album than this in 2021? I very much doubt it.
Following on from last year’s excellent Astro Tongue In The Electric Garden, Norwegian psychedelic/doom/prog rockers are now back with an equally tongue-twisting title – one that is probably utterly meaningless but combines wonderfully with the (probably utterly meaningless) Bosch-inspired artwork on the cover. That title and artwork will however give you the nagging feeling that there is a meaning to all this and if you stare at the myriad characters on the cover for long enough then you may unearth the concept behind the album and its title. Good luck with that, but it must be said that the sense of mystery that the cover creates fits well with the curious and surprisingly progressive music that unfolds within the album. Certainly, if it had been called Hex A.D V (yes, this is their fifth album) with a photo of the band members on the front cover then that aura of mystery would have evaporated.
Somewhat fittingly for our atypical funeral, the album opens with epic church organ chords, soon followed by guitar and Hammond, some spoken words, and then some bizarre doodling on guitar. It ends somewhat inconclusively after barely two minutes. That oddly unstructured prelude for side one, entitled Naadegave, has an equally odd companion piece called Painting With Panic which opens what would be side two in the vinyl world. Painting With Panic starts with quiet fingering on acoustic guitar and just when you’re convinced that this track plays the equivalent interlude role as Orchid on Master Of Reality, a burst of speed metal drumming wakes you up sharply as the song veers into an infectious metal groove! These two short songs demonstrate one of the hallmarks of the group: there’s absolutely no predictability at all. There’s rarely a straight-forward verse-chorus repeated three times structure and you have to expect the unexpected. The only two tracks that tend towards predictability are two songs in the mould of classic ‘80s rock: Seven Blades which has a great groove and sounds like something that would have fit comfortably on a Dio album; and All The Rage which after the return of the church organ launches into the sort of catchy metal anthem that Judas Priest happily churned out like hot cakes in that period.
The heart of the album though is in the four longer tracks, each one roughly seven to nine minutes in length. The longer duration gives time for these tracks to breathe and to demonstrate some extraordinary interplay between Rick Hagan’s guitar and Mags Johansen’s keyboards. Johansen does not use modern synths at all – as well as his trademark Hammond, he uses Moog and Mellotron – and these give a deliciously ‘70s feel to the music. The four tracks are remarkably different amongst themselves too. Got The Devil By The Tail has a heavy blues swagger to it and a lengthy instrumental interaction between guitar and Hammond. The mysteriously titled One Day Of Wrath, Another Gesture Of Faith has more of a doom feel to it with quieter sections that create the sort of tension and atmosphere that one hears in Zeppelin’s No Quarter, mixed with heavier riffing sections and a strong anthemic chorus.
Hell Hath No Fury brings out the more delicate side of the band. It is built around a simple but lovely falling guitar refrain and a strong melody in the verses. The chorus is punctuated by heavy chords and the songs climaxes in superb fashion with a stunning virtuoso solo from guest guitarist Rowan Robertson (of Dio fame). It’s probably the highlight of the album for me. Remember what I said about expecting the unexpected? Well, album closer Positively Draconian certainly delivers the unexpected in spades. Not only does it begin with a solo piano in a passable imitation of a Chopin nocturne, but the piano is then accompanied by Hagan’s crooning voice in a style that sounds distinctly like a good fit for a West End stage. The track does build up in a more typical Hex A.D. fashion with crunching chords and swirling Hammond before at the five-minute mark it launches into a faster and totally irresistible groove with another virtuoso solo, this time from Ronni Le Tekrö (TNT). Just when you think the track cannot get any more over the top, choral vocals return for a conclusion that I can only describe as typically 1970s (that’s a compliment!). It’s epic; it’s awesome; and suddenly that album cover seems to fit perfectly! Will there be a better heavy rock album than this in 2021? I very much doubt it.