Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hexx - No Escape (1984)

I'm a sucker for albums bearing strange and colorful, fantasy cover art from the 80s and Hexx's 1984 debut No Escape is no exception, an ugly palette of stone plateau pathways and a sculpted stone mountainside face clutching a moon as a crystal ball? Sign me up, I'll take two copies. In all seriousness, this California act were a magical, morphing entity who transitioned through several styles as they would attempt to maintain their career against the phasing face of the metal realm, first a classic melodic metal band, then assuming a more powerful stance, and then going outright thrash metal, to end up in a sphere of thrash/death akin to a Sadus or Dark Angel.

Even if I hadn't mentioned any of that, you would be able to guess precisely what No Escape was going to sound like due to the cover art and the fact it was released through Shrapnel Records, who in addition to being an early metallic shred capital, was responsible for a number of worthwhile hard rock, heavy/power metal and thrash efforts in the mid to late 80s. Bands like Vicious Rumors, Hawaii, Cacophony and Apocrypha are a few examples, but the label also supported Hexx for their first two albums, which remain their career best. This debut was not quite so memorable or powerful as the following Under the Spell, a truly excellent and unsung American classic, but there are plenty of kicks delivered here for the connoisseur of high pitched vocals, borderline hard rock riffs and wailing leads.

This is the sole album with original frontman Dennis Manzo, and he's got a voice very similar to that of Lizzy Borden: shrill and haunting, yet delivered with immeasurable grace and power. In particular, if you're fond of the early works Give 'Em the Axe, Love You to Pieces and Menace to Society, you're going to go ballistic over Manzo's performance here, because its as sharp and piercing as a crystal sword cutting you straight down the middle. In the end, I prefer his successor Dan Bryant's huskier tones on the following Under the Spell, but certainly Dennis gives it his all and is part of the equation that allows this debut to stand the test of time, even when surpassed by its next youngest sibling. Original guitarist Dan Watson and bassist Bill Peterson, present for the the band's entire studio career, are rock solid: Watson laying out big chords and melodic fills spring coiled with finesse, Peterson loud and proud even though he does hang back a little to suit the guitar rhythms. Original drummer Dave Schmidt is an adequate hard rock style drummer with some power to his hits.

The title track "No Escape" is probably the most memorable of this album's tracks, with Manzo's hooky wailing and some pretty busy guitar lines that weave in and out of a mid paced romp and then a climactic chorus riff which completely stands out here. I also love the creepy riff used in the intro and closing, and the solo is pure speed/shred terror ala Exciter. Other tight tracks here include the shuffling NWOBHM boogie of "Live for the Night", where Manzo sounds most similar to Borden thanks to his incessant shrieking; "Look to the Sky", which sounds like some hybrid of early Running Wild and Omen; and of course "Terror", a moody and frightful song which uses eerie guitars to build a steady atmosphere before some bleeding, savage melodic speed metal ensues. If you're just yearning to burn, then "The Other Side" and "Invader" should suit you just fine. There's also a molten power ballad gone rocker called "Fear No Evil" which is quite boss.

Granted, most of these tracks are not so catch as they could be, but the fact that this is an album from the early year of 1984 which is not so many miles behind a Powerslave or Ride the Lightning in sheer metallic entertainment value is a testament to the worthy job these four extracted from their first major studio journey together. This is not the first Hexx album I'd reach towards when requiring a fix, and there's nothing as brilliantly delivered as a "Hell Riders", but in all this should not be missed by fans of the 80s Shrapnel or Metal Blade rosters, in particular Lizzy Borden, Omen, Liege Lord, Riot and so forth.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

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