Without the shadow of a doubt Mark “The Shark” Shelton is one of the most creative metal musicians of all time. At the same time he is one of the most underrated visionaries of the genre. He formed US Metal legends Manilla Road back in 1977. The debut album “Invasion” was issued via their own record label Roadster in 1980.
Throughout the 1980s Manilla Road records were virtually ignored by the media. Only a few knowing fans (and dedicated fanzines) who adored the band's unique style of epic metal kept the flame alive, paving the way for the band’s astonishing rise to fame in the new millennium.
Now Mark Shelton presents his second official solo project outside of Manilla Road (if you discount “Circus Maximus”, which was planned as a solo project but due to record company pressure was released under the Manilla Road moniker). Hellwell’s »Behind The Demon’s Eyes« follows 2012’s debut »Beyond The Boundaries Of Sin«.
“The first thing that is really different if you compare the first to the second Hellwell album”, states the legendary Mark Shelton, “is that Randy Thrasher Foxe (of Manilla Road fame) is now the drummer for the band and he delivers a great performance on »Behind The Demon’s Eyes«. The themes and concepts are still coming from the same sort of Gothic horror, except this time there is a little more of a science fiction angle to it at times. The music is more polished than the first album and a lot of the material is more technical and even progressive one might say. I'm really proud of this album and the performances on it, as well as the compositions themselves.”
If you listen to the album carefully, it might occur to you that the keyboards and synthesizers are not that prominent on »Behind The Demon’s Eyes« in comparison to »Beyond The Boundaries Of Sin«. And furthermore, the 1970s hard rock feel does not seem to be that dominating, songs such as “Necromantio” do feature some more upbeat parts as well... Mark Shelton explains in detail: “We were not really trying to maintain a 1970s sound to the project or the band. The idea is to fuse different styles of metal and rock together that support the atmosphere of the concepts and stories within the album. »Behind The Demon’s Eyes« seems to be a little heavier than our first effort but at the same time the arrangements and songs themselves are a little more sophisticated… I guess that would be the correct word for it. As for the amount of keyboard or synthesizer parts, I think there is still a lot on the album. We only use the keys and synthesizers when we think it is appropriate. I know there was a lot of pipe organ stuff going on in this one. Especially in the songs that were really Gothic or Classic horror type themes. It's all just a matter of what sounds cool to us.”
All in all, this could lead to getting the impression that »Behind The Demon’s Eyes« is much closer to Manilla Road in style than Hellwell’s debut album... What made Mark decide that the six songs on the new album would not fit into the Manilla Road framework at all...? “I can see why you get that impression from some of this material,” he says. “With Randy playing on this one, sometimes it sounds to me like stuff that could have easily been on an album such as »Out Of The Abyss«. It really was not a matter of thinking that these songs would not fit with Manilla Road as much as it was just writing and creating these songs for Hellwell. None of these songs were ever considered for the new Manilla Road album. The thought never even crossed my mind because the new Manilla Road album already had a life of its own and a direction that had nothing to do with the songs that I had written for »Behind The Demon’s Eyes«. Every once in a while a song will slip from one project to another, but it is rare. For example, the song ‘Deadly Nightshade’ on the first Hellwell album was originally written for Manilla Road and the »Playground Of The Damned« album but Corey never came up with a drum part for it and it did not make it on that album. Some time later Johnny Benson (drummer on the first Hellwell release) heard the song and came up with a killer drum part for it and so we added keyboard parts and suddenly it became a Hellwell song. But all the songs on the new album were written specifically for this project.”
“It's not a concept album,” elaborates Mark Shelton on the lyrical content of »Behind The Demon’s Eyes«, “except for the fact that all the stories are horror stories in nature. Even the more modern, almost science fiction themes are still very rooted in classic horror. It is an album of several stories ranging from ghostly things to cannibalistic behaviour, human sacrifice, black magik of the occult, demons from other dimensions, aliens and even a song about Victor Frankenstein. It's a collage of tales in which there are no happy endings.”
Once more, the cover artwork is absolutely brilliant, who was responsible for it? “Paolo Girardi is the artist,” says Mark Shelton. “He also did our last Manilla Road album cover painting for »The Blessed Curse«. He is from Italy and a really close friend of mine for about 16 years. What I really like about Paolo is that he is a traditional artist that uses oil painting on canvas, like the old masters did. No computer imagery in his stuff and that just makes it so much more humanistic for me. There are some things that a computer still cannot do and art like that is one of those things. Paolo is simply an amazing artist.”
By the way, does Mark think that Hellwell would ever develop into a touring band? “Hellwell has never played a single live show,” is his straight answer. “We put the group together thinking of it as a studio project band only and so far we have stuck to that. I suppose it is possible that it could turn into a live touring band if the demand for such a thing would come to pass. But Manilla Road will always be my first and foremost ambition and we have a lot of touring ahead of us with Manilla Road, so I don't think a Hellwell tour will be happening any time soon.”
So it does seem pretty unlikely that Mark is planning to realize any more side projects (like Chris Black of High Spirits). Or would that be an option? Mark Shelton: “I actually still have at least one other project up my sleeve for the future but that will be announced in due time. Right now I am working on the next Manilla Road album. I might even put another solo project out but this time it will not be an all acoustic album.”
On the song “It’s Alive” it seems as if the Hellwell singer does experiment with his voice quite a bit. Somehow this reminds me a little bit of »Crystal Logic«, which was a very versatile album as well, especially in the vocal department... “Thanks for the kind words,” he says. “I try to approach the Hellwell material a little differently than I do everything else. There is a little more death metal style at times but I can never get completely away from melodic vocals and harmonies. I can experiment with the Hellwell vocal parts a little more than usual because of not having to worry about singing the parts live. It's a whole different thing to have to sing and play guitar at the same time and since I don't have to worry about that for live with this music, I can be a little more inventive with the vocal and guitar parts.”
“The Galaxy Being” has some really insane sound effects (especially at the beginning), sounding as if paying tribute to 1950s/60s science fiction/horror B-movies, creating a very haunting atmosphere, frightening stuff... “You have all of that totally correct,” Mark Shelton smiles. “That is exactly what we were after with the intro and ending of that song. Glad to see that it worked, ha, ha. I'm a huge fan of old science fiction and horror from all time frames but the stuff that came out in the 1950s and 1960s was especially influential to me because that was when I was growing up and the Saturday movie matinees were only .25 cents for a triple feature. We used to go to the drive-in theatres every weekend watching many a B-movie. I still go back and watch those movies and am still fascinated with the genre of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Much of what was science fiction to us back then is now science fact today. Sorry. I was rambling, he, he. Back to the point – the soundtracks from those movies are incredible cool if you ask me. Such great weird and eerie sounds they came up with back then. And if you think of the equipment they were using. Well, back then you had Foley Artists instead of digital sound samples. They didn't have all-in-one synthesizers like today and yet they came up with some great sounds and effects. It is sort of a tribute, as is a lot of the music on the album. That is a tribute to the whole of the horror and science fiction genre of entertainment.”
“The Last Rites Of Edward Hawthorn” is over 13 minutes long, an epic metal prog monster, again very emotional, dramatic and full of dynamics... How does the Hellwell boss compose such a song? On the guitar, on the piano, keyboards, computer? “With that song it started with piano,” reveals Mark Shelton, “which is what turned into the first section of the song. Then my son wrote the music for the second passage in the song. He wrote that on guitar. If I remember correctly, he wrote it on a six string acoustic and then played it on electric on the album. The third and heaviest part of the song I wrote on guitar. The arrangements for the keyboard parts and bass parts, drums and vocals were all created after the initial rhythm tracks. Most generally, I will write the songs using guitar but with Hellwell sometimes the keyboard parts come first in the creation of the song. For example, the big heavy doom section of the song ‘To Serve Man’ was thought of on keyboards by me first and then the guitar part sort of came to me while I was messing around on the keys. You just never can tell what will happen if you experiment and play around, giving things like that a chance to come out of you. That is why I love having my own studio and having the time to chill out and get creative with it.”
Was writing »Behind The Demon’s Eyes« a team effort or more like a Mark Shelton solo project under the banner of Hellwell? The “Shark” says: “I guess this one was more of a Shelton idea than a group effort when it comes to the actual writing of the music and lyrics but it was all of us, including the second engineer in our studio, Derek (Dr. Doom) Brubaker, that came up with the topic ideas and the overall approach to the project. In that manner, it was a team effort. Also the drums were done in a different studio than mine, so you had others involved in the creation process at that studio also. I sort of took control of writing all the songs on this one, except for the help I got from my son on ‘The Last Rites oOf Edward Hawthorn’. I started working on this album directly after finishing the first Hellwell album »Beyond The Boundaries Of Sin«. I had a pretty good idea in my head what direction I wanted the next album to sound like. I wanted to expand on the atmospheric and mystical sound possibilities but at the same time I was hearing great doom-laden sections of epic majesty and super heavy sections with near thrash intensity. All this was already swirling around in my head and I think because I already had a direction musically with the first ideas for the album, everyone just let me run with the ball. It was a great feeling when we finished the final mixes on this one. I had a lot of fun working with all the guys involved in this project and I'm totally proud of the outcome of the music, performances and art. It's a sweet package with some of my best progressive epic horror doom metal, ha, ha. ‘Up The Hammers & for sure Down The Nails’.”