As much as we want to think otherwise, our reception, enjoyment and evaluation of music is not strictly dependent on the pure act of listening. A truism perhaps, but still something that is worth reflecting on from time to time. Especially for collectors of cult metal vinyl – the modern-day personification of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome (or should we say old clothes?). If you invest a disproportionate amount of time, effort and money in reading about and eventually acquiring a record – as collectors of obscure metal tend to do – your judgement is likely to get clouded to the point where it’s hard to assess the quality of the work in question. And this includes both positive and negative judgements. Case in point: the hype surrounding the Icelandic proto-black metal band Flames of Hell and their sole full-length album Fire and Steel (1987).
According to the few snippets of information scattered around the net, Flames of Hell was founded in Reykjavik by the enigmatic brethren Sigurður (bass) and Steinþór (vocals/guitars) Nicolaison, together with Jóhann Richardsson (drums). A third Nicolaison brother, Kristinn – nowadays a renowned painter – did the infernal cover art and also issued the album on his publishing company Draconian. Flames of Hell’s debut LP is extremely rare, even by 1980s underground standards. Allegedly, only about 50-100 copies were printed, of which the majority was scrapped, possibly because of a printing error. This seemingly irrational decision is surely one of the reasons why Fire and Steel has become such an infamous record.
The historical and geographical context in which the music was conceived also helps to further the legend. Iceland in the 1980s was practically devoid of heavy metal, at least in terms of people actively performing and recording it. Flames of Hell was one of few existing metal bands, all styles included. That they were met with confusion, ignorance and even hostility can more or less be taken for granted. For some reason – most likely in lack of better alternatives – Fire and Steel was recorded in a studio located in the basement of a YMCA establishment. Not surprisingly, this led to some sort of confrontation and the band was banished from ever returning to the premises. In fact, the whole studio was evicted because of the blasphemous nature of Flames of Hell’s music and the general behavior of its members. No matter if all of this is true or not, it’s a funny anecdote that fits comfortably into the band-narrative.
Another crucial issue that strengthens the cultural capital of Flames of Hell is their choice of style. By the mid-to-late 1980s, the primitivism and occult imagery of proto-underground acts like Bathory, Hellhammer and Venom was hopelessly unfashionable. Technical, catchy and preferably social-conscious speed metal was what the crowd wanted back then, not brutes making noise and praising the Dark Lord. Consequently, Flames of Hell signed their own fate by paying tribute to what has generally come to be known as first wave black metal. In retrospect, this is exactly the reason why we are even writing about them today.
So, with all cult-factors ticked off (scarce but tantalizing background information, striking cover, obscure sound, vinyl impossible to find and obscenely expensive, etc.), Fire and Steel is a record scavenger’s wet dream. For the rest of us, considering all the hype built up, the music is bound to disappoint on initial encounter no matter how godly or awful it actually is. And as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Tapping into the vibe conjured by the primordial masters, Fire and Steel is graced by a murky, lo-fi production that emanates pure 1980s darkness and evil. Judging by spatial aspects and the raw, unpredictable performance, it seems likely that the whole thing was recorded live in the studio. Drums in particular sound distinctly “live in the basement”. The bass rumbles along deep-down south, while guitar bleeds distortion all over the place. On top of it all hovers the vocals of Steinþór Nicolaison, whose over-the-top singing style counts as the highlight of the album. Attacking every syllable as was it his last, brother Steinþór can be described as the bastard child of Rob Halford, Varg Vikernes and Dreamweaver-era Martin Walkyier – with a dash of Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker on top of that. Definitely one of metal history’s most idiosyncratic and frankly amusing voices.
Fire and Steel can be roughly divided into two type of songs. First, we have the NWOBHM-influenced, conventionally structured verse/chorus numbers. Best of the bunch is arguably the album’s second track, “Evil”. By successfully combining proto-speed metal riffing with the swaggering drive of Motörhead and the chorus-oriented and unabashedly anthemic aspects of early US power metal, Flames of Hell manage to create an irresistibly hooky song that still retains a filthy, blasphemous undercurrent. Unfortunately, the two or three other songs done in similar fashion pale in comparison.
The other half of Fire and Steel is considerably less audience-friendly, consisting of slower, droning compositions that revolve around a limited number of Black Sabbath-influenced riffs over which the vocalist spew out his demonic adorations. Usually the bass takes the lead, repeating the same riff over and over again, grinding down the listener to a mantric numbness. The song structures are loosed up as the band launches into their “epic” numbers, which are little more than jam-based excursions into oblivion. Oftenwise, as in the eponymous “Flames of Hell” with stupefying ¾ rhythm, the band attempt to break up the plodding with bursts of lead guitar, but instead of offering respite it only serves to deepen the misery.
Taken as a whole, Fire and Steel is definitely not a mundane album, but neither is not particularly good. It’s a typical case of grandiose aspirations held back by a lack of both skill and craft. Particularly the ambitious 5 min+ tracks suffer from the musicians’ technical and compositional incapability. The atmosphere is compelling at times, but there’s little to no dynamics to hold together the longer songs and it quickly becomes a chore for the listener to get through the album in one listen. As for the technical aspects, the guitar leads make for a good example. Each solo excursion consists of little more than the guitarist playing simple and excruciatingly predictable scale runs, leaving it up to the bass and drums to maintain the listener’s attention. In fact, the drummer is probably the most accomplished of the bunch and one gets the impression that he’s doing his very best to save the songs from complete collapse.
While it seems highly likely that Flames of Hell aimed to become the Icelandic version of Bathory or Hellhammer, their song material stays much closer to 1970s/80s heavy metal conventions. As such, it’s a unique and quite charming attempt to bring back some spirit and unpredictability into a metal scene that had grown increasingly stale and complacent. However, Fire and Steel falls short in almost every aspect possible except spirit and – to some extent – creativity, leaving it up to the Norwegians to carry on the legacy of black metal.