Without the shadow of a doubt Mark “The Shark” Shelton is one of the most creative heavy 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 in 1977. The debut album “Invasion” was issued via their own record label Roadster in 1980.
Throughout the 1980's Manilla Road records were virtually ignored by the media. Only a few knowing fans who adored the band's unique style of epic metal kept the flame alive.
Now Mark Shelton presents his first 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 is the name of Mark Shelton's current solo project. But first he travels back in time with us to “Circus Maximus”: “Yeah, well, 'Circus Maximus' is still like a solo project or another band entirely to me. There is only one song that sounds remotely like Manilla Road and that would be 'Forbidden Zone' but the rest of the project was definitely not Manilla's sound. But this could be in its official way my first solo type project. But it's not really a solo project either because there were several of us working on this project together. It's more of a band thing than it is a Shark solo thing. I'm really super proud of it though. This is some of the most killer heavy doom like thrashy bombastic epic progressive mayhem that I have ever played. I'm just loving the direction of this band and the album 'Beyond the Boundaries of Sin'.”
The obvious question to follow would indeed be: Who's in the band then? “That is a loaded question”, finds Mark. “We started the project as more of a one off album but then decided to go ahead and make a band of it. We are even now still adding new members to the group. So the next project that Hellwell will put out will have even more names on it. But on this album the line up is Jonny Thumper Benson on drums and he also plays some guitar and bass and did a little writing on this project. E.C. Hellwell (who the band is obviously named after) plays keyboards, synthesizers and bass. I play guitars and sing lead vocals on most everything but we had some special appearances by Bryan Hellroadie Patrick and Josh Castillo from Manilla Road.”
So there you have it. The concept of “Beyond the Boundaries of Sin” has much to do with literature and a certain E.C. Hellwell. Mark explains the whole concept of the album: “Side one of the album is just a collection of songs but side two is a complete concept based on the short story 'Acheronomicon' which was written by E.C. Hellwell. He has not been published until now but he has a few other stories that Manilla Road has based songs on before like 'The Riddle Master' and 'Cage of Mirrors'. E.C. came into my life when I was in school way back when and has been a fairly big influence on my philosophical approach to horror. Side two of the album is a trilogy concept that is based on this apocalyptic tale that Ernie came up with not long ago. After reading it I knew that I must put it to music.”
The story itself does have some H.P Lovecraft traces. The Shark agrees: “Yes, I would say there are traces of Lovecraft in the story. There are maybe even more traces of Robert E. Howard in it. E.C. has a style that is based out of Poe, Lovecraft and Howard but it is a bit of a style of his own also. He tends to like to do first person stories instead of narratives. Although I read a part of a novel he was working on at one point and it was a narrative style filled with lots of action. I don't think he ever finished it though. I should ask him about that one. E.C. has lots of stuff that he should try and get published.”
Mark Shelton has once described the music of Hellwell as "similar to Manilla Road but with keyboards". “To Manilla Road fans I would say it's like Manilla Road's evil twin”, he says. “To outsiders that don't know Manilla Road I would say it is like a cross between Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, early Metallica and Manilla Road. Still had to throw the Road in there, ha, ha.”
The opening number "The Strange Case of Dr. Henry Howard Holmes" does indeed feature some very melodic but very haunting (and epic) keyboard work. The guitars, however, are extremely crunchy. The singing is very versatile. A superb song. I do wonder if "Beyond the Boundaries of Sin" is indeed the best album Manilla Road have never written? The Shark laughs: “Ha, ha. That's a good way to put it maybe. It's so different working with a keyboard player. You can do things that you can't when you are sticking to a guitar-only based band. 'Playground of the Damned' was an album that Manilla Road was stretching into the really dark and horror-like realm and I was looking to get into some really heavy and dark concepts and music. Darker than I thought was proper for Manilla Road. So that is why I was so ready to do a project like Hellwell. Like I said, Hellwell is like Manilla Road's evil twin. The concepts that the band deals with are all truly dark stuff and some of it downright evil. Songs of cannibalism, serial killers and monsters from the abyss. Don't expect a bunch of happy endings here because it's not happening on this album, ha, ha.”
"Deadly Nightshade" is quite a hard and heavy song, relatively straight forward, but with a couple of interesting twists and turns. Also a hugely interesting number … The Shark explains in more detail: “There is a good story to 'Deadly Nightshade'. It was actually written for the 'Playground of the Damned' album but Cory really never could come up with a part for it. When we started working with Thumper he heard the song once and said, man, I've got a great idea for that song. So we started working on it and he came up with the part right away. I decided to finish working on the song with him and E.C. and it turned out really cool. It was going to be sung by Hellroadie on the 'Playground' album so I thought we would bring him in to do the vocals on it anyway and then Josh was like I want to play on the project also. That's sort of how we ended up with the special appearances by the other Manilla Road band members. So 'Deadly Nightshade' could be considered the actual crossing over song for Hellwell. It is the point where Manilla Road and Hellwell intersect.”
The legions of ardent Manilla Road followers are probably asking themselves now, is Hellwell just a studio project or will there be live shows as well? Mark Shelton is not really sure at the moment: “Well, that is where the addition of new members comes in. We were not planning on making Hellwell a live band at first. Just a project from the Midgard Sound Labs studio. But the farther along the project came, the more we realized that this was fast becoming something that all of us are damned proud of. So we decided to start looking toward what we would have to do to pull the music off live. So we are adding ex-bassist for Manilla Road Mark Anderson ('Atlantis Rising' and 'Spiral Castle') to the group and another guitarist Miles Payday from Dead Orchestra fame will be joining us as well. This should give us the permanent line up that could easily do the music live and would permit us the possibility of touring. We are already working on another Hellwell album and are about three songs into it as we speak.”
So with Manilla Road working on a new studio album as well, Mark “The Shark” Shelton is probably busier than he has ever been since the band's inception in 1977. “I have lots of irons in the fire but Manilla Road always comes first”, he states regarding the importance of side projects. “I have a lot of acoustic stuff that I have worked on it the past that will someday come to light and there will most likely be another Hellwell album also. But for right now I am currently working on the next Manilla Road album. I do also have another band called Myskatonia but I am just the singer in that band. I don't write much except for lyrics and vocal stuff. I'm sure it will also be released in the near future.”