For every song there are two audiences: the one intended and the one eventually found. The difference between the two can range between disheartening and laughable. Small intimate ditties barely big enough to fill a room find themselves blasted to crowds of thousands while big, swelling anthems that aim for the rafters often fall on the ears of only two or three people. I’ve seen both scenarios happen. Intent is only the first step in a song’s life, because once the masses begin to cling to something intent goes straight out the window.
I can’t say I speak from experience, but there must be a trick, and thus a mastery, to balancing intent and audience. Consider any number of artists going back 50 years who have been able to fill coliseums and deliver a performance apropos of the setting. Granted, the height of stadium rock in the 70’s and 80’s seems firmly ensconced in the past and the largest stadium rock acts able to justify a venue fitting the nomenclature seem to be the same ones that helped kickstart the phenomenon in the first place. But the persistence of so many of these musicians in the modern zeitgeist insists there’s at least a blueprint to be followed for artists looking to capture the enormity and bombast of the arena rock experience.
Case in point, San Antonio’s Hellgrimm likely has a copy of this blueprint and has been studying it since before its inception in 2018. The band makes a return to Antichrist’s pages with Ritual, their latest release which dropped late August 2022. As hard-working revivalists of the heavy metal spectacular, Hellgrimm has kept busy since Antichrist first discussed their Elysium EP. In 2021, the band released both a live EP and their first full-length, The Hunger. With their second full length, the duo of Erica Missey and Jerry Connor have made a strong case with Ritual that anywhere there are butts in bleacher seats there is an audience ready for big guitars and even bigger hooks.
True to their pedigree, I’m sure these songs performed in a live setting are a hell of a time. The difference between the energy of a live show and the experience of combing through all the intricacies of an album in your own home is a yawning chasm, and rarely can any one song hit both sides. Ritual is decidedly imbued with the former, and that gave me some difficulty meeting Ritual on the terms of the latter. These are not intimate songs, and as such the experience of listening through a home audio system or over headphones is too small for what Hellgrimm is aiming for. Further, the little nits that would otherwise be glossed over in a live environment end up having an outsized influence. For one, the production and mixing feel a little too slick and manufactured for Hellgrimm’s brash forays into vice and debauchery. Whether that’s due to heaps of compression or a precision manufactured through countless studio takes, there’s a streamlined nature that feels a little sanitized instead of the grittiness typically found at a rock show. Instead of a big wall built up by thick, warm tones that envelope the listener, lean and papery guitar and bass almost wall off listeners who might be looking for more sustenance.
Hellgrimm’s musicianship is a different story. Connor’s riffs and leads are creative and inventive from the first track to the last, and the bass dutifully supports his guitar’s sojourns. The richest element on Ritual, though, is undoubtedly Missey’s bluesy wail. The vocals do a lot of the lifting on these tracks, and for extremely good reason. Missey is a hell of a singer, and her performance on “Back From the Dead” would floor an entire General Admission Pit when performed live. Which is why I take umbrage with how clunky and unpleasant some of these lyrics are in service to verbosity. Awkward phrasing and excessive syllables are unnecessary obstacles to the flow and groove of a song, which I think would be a cardinal sin according to The Arena Rock Canon. The experience sometimes comes off as jagged and unsatisfying, which makes my inner editor caterwaul about the economics of language. Admittedly the little guy isn’t much fun at parties, but he is also why my reviews aren’t twice as long.
More importantly than all these points, Ritual is first and foremost a celebration that won’t be doused out. It’s absolutely evident that Missey and Connor are having a damn good time, and that is infectiously translated through the glee of “Jack of All Blades” and menace of “Creepy Crawly”. Hellgrimm’s audience is everyone who wants to rock out with as many people as can be crammed together, and then a few more for good measure. That’s a hell of a lot of people, and as a delivery mechanism for the band’s brand of heavy metal, Ritual is intended for every one of them. I’m positive they’ll find each other.
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