Flames of Hell
“Fire and Steel” CD (no label)
The Flames of Hell LP is a legend to metal collectors as the Opus 45 is to punk collectors: few have heard it, fewer still have held it, and, besides having a primitive sound and odd recording, one listen to the record shows that something was not right in heads of the band members, leading some to wonder if the legend surpasses the actual record. The first minute or so of this “Fire and Steel” is relatively pedestrian Bathory- and Hellhammer-inspired early ‘80s metal. And then the vocals hit. Sounding a bit like he just dipped his balls in one of Iceland’s geothermal hot springs, guitarist/vocalist Steinþór Nicolaison is either the worst or the best thing about this record. I can’t say I’ve ever heard vocals quite like his. High-pitched vocals abound in metal (a genre about which I am no expert), but the way the castrato Steinþór manages to generate a palpably demonic creepiness with his shreiks, peals, and vocal stabs (sounding somewhere between the noise one makes when stabbing and when getting stabbed) is quite unique. Musically, this record is at least three years late for the trend, as mainland Europe’s metallists had dropped the stripped-down mid-tempo swagger of Hellhammer in favor of high-speed thrash by 1987. That makes Flames of Hell even more interesting to me. Additionally, their crude, amateurish recording and clunky playing was atypical for European metal by 1987.
Nevertheless, as soon as the listener grows accustomed, more or less, to the vocals and the roughness of the whole affair, Steinþór starts soloing. One surmises that a young Steinþór spent many a long Icelandic night (all day long in the winter, right?) practicing scales on his trusty axe because most of the solos, as unexpectedly placed as they might be in a given song, are hopelessly predictable: they’re nearly all scales or variations on scales, played with little regard for key. Of the songs, “Heroes in Black,” third on the album, stands out as an eleven-minute epic dirge. It is brooding, heavy, and creepy as fuck. Everyone will probably agree that it goes on for way too long, but its uncomfortable length only adds to the atmosphere. I prefer the four up-tempo songs to the three slow ones, probably because the slow ones are more melodramatic, which is a quality metallists likely appreciate far more than I do. Nonetheless, the mid-tempo eponymous closer is the most bizarre song on the album, as it alternates between Steinþór’s caterwauling and high-speed runs up and down the frets over a plodding beat. I was unsure about this album on the first listen, repelled by the vocals, as most listeners will be. But these raw sounds have grown on me greatly, and “Fire and Steel” is clearly unlike any other record out there. This CD includes no information about the band, but the always excellent Corroseum metal archive (www.thecorroseum.com) has a great review of the LP. This bootleg was cheap and was recorded directly off the vinyl, with surface noise, pops, and maybe a skip or two included, like any proper low-budget bootleg of an uber-rarity. I tend to believe that if you don’t like Flames of Hell, they’ve achieved what they’d hoped to achieve, and that is all the more reason to seek out this CD.