Album Title: Panopticon
Label: Independent Release
Date of Release: 18 March 2022
Today’s review kills two birds with one stone as the old saying goes. It feeds my current hunger for death metal, whilst also allowing me to what I like doing, which is shining the spotlight on an artist that are not currently very well known, but perhaps deserve to be. And that artist goes by the name of Hellbore. ‘Panopticon’ is the sophomore release from what is effectively a transatlantic duo. Charlie Munro is based in the UK, and he handles all of the guitars and bass, whilst also being responsible for the mixing and production of the record. His partner in crime within Hellbore is vocalist Chris Whitby who calls New York his home.
As far as I’m concerned, based on the content of ‘Panopticon’, Hellbore should be much more well known in death metal circles, because there is a lot to like about this record. The press release doesn’t credit anyone with providing the drums here, so I have to assume that they have been programmed by Munro. If that’s the case, then he should definitely take a bow, because they are one of many positives on ‘Panopticon’. Varied, thunderous, and aided by the production on the album, another positive that deserves a mention. I know that technology has advanced over the years, but considering that the record has been self-produced, likely with a fraction of the budget of some of their signed peers, it is marvellous; clear, powerful, and punchy, providing the music with an air of authority, allowing it to shine whilst tearing your head clean off your shoulders.
Apparently, Hellbore began life as more of a thrash-infused death metal outfit, and you can certainly hear this within the 39-minute brutal attack of ‘Panopticon’. After a 90 second cinematic and dramatic instrumental intro piece, ‘Libertus’, that also introduces us to Munro’s guitar tones, we’re hit with ‘All Men Are Created Evil’. It charges from the speakers with a flurry of scything riffs and demonstrable thrash aggression, Whitby wasting no time in spitting forth his caustic, savage vocals, almost frothing at the mouth as he shrieks in a higher-pitched gruff manner. However, Whitby also possesses a commanding deeper, more guttural growl which nicely compliments his higher delivery and offers an added layer of variety to the material.
Within the opener, we are given a sense of just how far the band have come since their inception. Not only is the track itself well put together in terms of its flow, but it offers much more than just a death/thrash attack. Moments of orchestration add gravitas without overpowering the rest of the music, whilst also hinting at a slight black metal element with tinkling keys in the background. Munro impresses with some deft guitar work, more the preserve of the techdeath genre. It is flamboyant without being overly indulgent, and his solo at the halfway stage demonstrates musicality as well as complexity.
The opening groove to ‘Angel Slayer’ is sure to test a few neck muscles, whilst the bulk of the track itself demonstrates a more measured approach in terms of tempo, being appreciably slower than its predecessor. ‘Terror Eyes’ by contrast, comes out with fists and legs flying everywhere, easily one of the fastest periods to appear on this album. And then, everything dies away to leave a clean guitar creating a jazzy little melody that I really wasn’t expecting. It demonstrates that desire by Whitby and Munro to experiment, once again, but in a way it’s a precursor for what’s to come later.
When I say ‘later’, I’m referring to the three-part title track that concludes ‘Panopticon’. Spread over 19 minutes, it’s without doubt the jewel in Hellbore’s crown on this record. ‘Panopticon I’ begins well, with more cinematic orchestration that’s urgent and dramatic, before blasting into a frenzied death metal attack, with the bass in particular drawing the ear as it dances effortlessly within the fast blastbeat-led tumult. Things soon calm down though, allowing different ideas to surface along the way, but a warp-speed blast is never far away. This is easily the most progressive and technical that Hellbore have been thus far on the album, and I really like the end result, hearing all the different elements merge into one song. Strange sci-fi-like synth sounds, orchestral swells, quieter and more delicate passages; they all feature within the first eight minutes of this mighty composition.
‘Panopticon II’ takes over, and it does so in subdued, dark fashion, the orchestration minimal but atmospheric before being superseded by a technical stop-start riff and a clear progressive agenda. I also hear a touch more deathcore here than previously as Hellbore go all-out with their experimentation to great effect. ‘Panopticon III’ concludes the trilogy very well, initially with a cheeky jazzy feel before launching into more familiar techdeath territory but with a return to the thrashier side too thanks to some great riffing.
Given the year that we have has so far in the realm of death metal, it was always going to be a tall order for a relatively unknown entity to make an impression. But credit to Hellbore and to Charlie Munro and Chris Whitby for achieving just that with this excellent and entertaining slab of extreme metal that is both aggressive and enjoyable in equal measure. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is the very best death metal album I have heard in 2022, but it is a genuinely great record nonetheless that I have had a lot of fun listening to. Trust me when I say that you could do an awful lot worse than listen to ‘Panopticon’ by Hellbore. I just hope that their endeavours get noticed so that we are guaranteed a third album at some point in the future.
The Score of Much Metal: 85%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
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