Over the Christmas break, I took time to get familiar with bands on the UNIFY Gathering line-up in the lead-up to the 12-14th January event. Sydney’s Hellions were one of those bands.
It didn’t take long from my initial listen of Hellions’ Opera Oblivia album (released mid 2016) to discover that this album was ‘one of those’: an album that sticks with you, where your listen feels like you’ve witnessed something important and significant. This masterpiece felt like a collection of works that deserved attention and care. I decided to do so with a retrospective review.
The album includes the creative work of Hellions’ Dre Faivre (vocals), Anthony Caruso (drums) Matthew Gravolin (guitar/vocals), Josh Campiao (guitar) and Chris Moretti (bass), as well as Northlane’s Jonathon Deiley, Ocean Grove’s Sam Bassal and Heroes For Hire’s Duane Hazell collaborating on the album. Producer Shane Edwards is attributed by the band as pushing their boundaries on Opera Oblivia. Coming in fresh to Hellions and having my mind blown by this album, the work of this collective of creatives has clearly paid off.
Why ‘Opera Oblivia’? Matthew shares: “The act-based structure was an epiphany of Anthony’s that came to him towards the end of the recording process. His mentality was that we should structure the album as a traditional opera, so when it came to deciding upon the track listing, we did so thematically. This gives the record a loose orientation, complication and resolution in the form of Acts, based on the topics discussed in each song.”
By way of that orientation, we are going track-by-track, starting at “24”. “24” is a hope-filled inspirational tale wrapped in gigantic anthemic rock. It captures powerful truths, spanning from delicate guitarwork and chimes, building through to climactic gang backed affirmations to be yourself in this world where we’re ‘raised as cattle to be the same’. I can’t say enough about this epic track, and the way it sits in anticipation on a cliff’s edge of conformity, asking us to take off and fly. I’m moved upon every listen.
“Go on and let yourself bruise
We all need to learn how to lose”
The band re-recorded/re-released “24” with Josh Franceschi (of You Me At Six) who lends his massive vocal forces to Hellions’ mission. Both versions are just as goosebump-worthy.
“Quality Of Life” follows and the track is a more pointed and edgier light being shone on our individual motivations, using a “I’ve realised something and you need to hear it” voice to affirm that we can break the shackles of societal norms of box-ticking education and career and let something else drive us: intuition.
At times tangled and challenged and pressuresome in its paradigm shifting ideas, expressed by vicious guitarwork and aggressive vocals, “Quality Of Life” at essence is a beautiful nod to personal freedom and freedom of choice and a clinking of glasses as we drink to that.
“Don’t feel obliged to live a life you never wanted to
The best way out is straight through
Let intuition guide you
You could be happy, if you wanted to be”
Where the previous two songs were more inspirational, “Thresher” feels more weighted down by reality and expressing the experience of existing in frustrating circumstances. The bridge takes on a sense of finally shrugging out of that (“Enough, enough, I’m screaming”), with an unexpected (but not unpleasant) piano focus before a spoken word sense of horror about what has been endured, how long and for why.
The following track “Lotus Eater” gives a mythological lens to what’s being shared. The Lotus-eaters in Greek mythology referred to a race of people who consumed lotuses which acted as a narcotic, rendering them existing in an apathetic stupor. The high paced track refers to Death as a she, and seems to wrestle with mortality and facing the uncomfortable over existing in apathy.
One thing I love about Opera Oblivia are the unexpected shifts and midway through “Lotus Eater” is a beautiful one. In this we move from a franticness to something more warm and expansive, with orchestral elements and verbalisation before the magic is lost and it moves more darkly into something doom-filled and an increasingly desperate sounding chorus.
“Lotus Eater” as a track adds to the voice of questioning things that are just accepted as the norm. The following track “He Without Sin i) Halation” does the same by way of questioning those that are given authority in society. The track’s sleepy beginnings are soon undone with rawness, questioning what exactly determines the authority specific people hold.
“To the priest that steals purity while he whispers holy things
To the pig besmirching the innocent behind the pretence of peace”
The spacious moments up against raw confusion make the expression of confusion hit hard, with the grotesque point hitting home: “What gives them the right?”. By way of “halation”, I take it to mean that Hellions are questioning the metaphorical halos held by the undeserving. It could also be taken to reflect the light they’re shedding on the ‘shadows’ of these authority figures.
The follow-up “He Without Sin ii) Heels of the Hands” shines a light upon the fallout from priests abusing their positions of power, with layered (adult) voices of those who had been presumably sexually abused by priests. The common thread being a sickening and sad sense of self-blame and responsibility for what was done to them in the name of faith. The statements shared show how far the manipulation of the children had gone. It is tough to sit with, adding weighty realness to the message Hellions are sharing.
“Bad Way” follows, giving space to the previous track with a gorgeous guitar intro before precision drumming announces the first verse. The hecticness of riffs and tense vocals of the verses reflect a relationship left in chaos, with miscommunication and alcohol fuelling its disintegration. A pensive ending to the track has us feeling very much alone.
But “Nightliner Rhapsody” rips us back into it and away from isolation, seeming like a barstool bond of fellow vice-soaked humans. It’s a frantic pace made to feel even more swift (and connected) with line-by-line dual vocals, with a reprieve at the anthemic choruses. Breakdown sections are deliciously cool, adding to the lows that have been hit, with the powers of alcohol being both comforting and lubricating in the name of surviving.
Side note: I’m a massive fan of Hellions’ penchant for wordplay as shown in these tracks.
“Nuestra Culpa” could at first seem like a pause in the emotional theatrics, but it pours raw ache, building upon the previous eight tracks. I had to look it up (among many other words in the process of this review) to discover that ‘nuestra culpa’ translates to mean ‘our fault’. As temporary visitors of this world (‘sojourners’), Hellions’ head-first dive into responsibility asks “Can we do better?”, expressing this also about their role as creatives and musicians.
“I’d much prefer to be hated than pitied
To fall flat on my face trying to innovate
Than to meet an industry-imposed standard and rest on it”
“Nuestra Culpa” echoes the band’s intention to push their own limits, and they’re doing it so hard and with such intensity that it’s impossible to not be drawn in along with them on the ride. The track hits a climax with a cinematic, soaring, and heartstring-tugging exploratory sound. Beautiful is an understatement.
The closing act of Opera Oblivia is “25”, a coming of age in many ways, questioning the inspirational creativity of youth as we grow older, acknowledging the everlasting imprint of kindness.
“You’re still here”
The huge track is the older sibling of “24”, affirming more clearly that we will suffocate unless we change and celebrate our own uniqueness, painting onto the canvas of life. It’s yet another powerfully moving track and the perfect close to the album.
Opera Oblivia is fittingly a uniquely creative album in which Hellions walk their talk. Inspirational and hopeful, I plan to lean on it to be supported by it at any time it feels like my own creative expression has stagnated or become more compliance than innovation rich with meaning. The importance of this album as a piece of art can’t be understated.
Hellions will be on stage 10:30pm Saturday 13th January at Unify Gathering and we cannot wait.