It feels a little strange to be listening to a band like HELL right now. Right now, as you read this, two sad, stupidly powerful men feint and jab at one another, flaunting nuclear arsenals like toys and holding the fate of the planet in their vulgar fingers. In a parallel timeline, the enigmatic project—now as ever shepherded by multi-instrumentalist MSW—is poised to release its next great beneficence, an eponymous long-player that marks the Salem, OR entity's first new full-length since 2012. Doom remains the order of the day, through a perverse rendering of Sabbathian tones that lurches down towards the hateful recesses of drone and sludge; scattered samples color the recording, as does the operatic lilt of guest vocalist Kristi, which hangs suspended in air near the album's close. By enveloping myself within HELL's radium-bright notes, agonized howls, and ominous dirges, it's almost like I'm inviting the unthinkable… or the inevitable, depending on which side of the nuclear divide our current administration deigns to drop us.
"George Carlin put it a really simple way in his stand up about seeing America as a "freak show," MSW mused during in a short interview conducted earlier this week. "There are the 'freaks,' the people sitting back and watching the 'freaks' in awe, and the people that 'run the freak show.' I feel like a lot of people in these oppressive genres are the people cracking a beer or six, and sitting back and watching everything fall apart, not knowing quite how to solve the problem or change things. I would love to spend my last days or hours watching this world rid itself of our failed human race. I just hope I stay alive long enough to see most of it burn."
The band's sound is often described as "oppressive" in its heaviness, tone, and unrelenting crawl, and in its uncanny ability to mimic the suffocating anguish that consumes us under state and social repression. The overall effect is apocalyptic, but instead of fire and fury, HELL personifies the dusty, cold hopelessness that manifests a few days after the blast, once the screams have come and gone. "[When it comes to] the genre 'doom,' I imagine it having a specific end of the world/apocalyptic sound, hence the name… we're all doomed," MSW explained. "What I'm doing with the HELL project is trying to find that sound that I imagined eight years ago every time I sit down to record a track. HELL has been a support system for me through a lot of death in my family. Being able to create music like this has helped me get through those hard times without winding up dead myself."
HELL has grown from a cryptic secret held close to the black denim vest by those lucky enough to have stumbled across them on record (or better yet, seen MSW bring his ghastly vision to life onstage) into a more internationally recognized project—still underground, but no longer quite so difficult to find. The band's profile has risen over its decade of existence, but the black, bleak awfulness that fueled those earliest demos remains, as does their creator's desire to retain control. MSW has partnered with Bay Area-based label Sentient Ruin to release HELL on various physical formats, while keeping the cassette rights for his own label, LowerYourHead, with which he's kept a firm hand on HELL's output.
"I never started the project with expectations of playing live, releasing albums or touring, but all that shit happened anyways," he told me. "To give this fully over to a label and anybody doesn't feel right. I always want to be involved in some way with a release so it doesn't feel like someone is taking this away from me. Also, everyone should fucking support DIY labels! It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to keep a label afloat."
Though he mostly works alone, MSW has never been averse to collaboration with other musicians, living—or, sometimes—dead. HELL's seven tracks are pockmarked with sounds and words from other people, from Emily Dickinson on "Seelenlos" to a doomed ship's muffled Mayday call on "Helmzmen" and an argument between a believer and an atheist on "Inscriptus." MSW is especially partial to what is arguably the most unsettling clip of all, an homage to the U.S. military's fondness for the horrors of psychological warfare and a harrowing glimpse back into the history of propaganda via the conjured voices of dead Viet Cong soldiers.
"My personal favorite sample on the album is the "WanderingSoul" sample," MSW explains. "That sample is from Ghost Tape #10 (Operation Wandering Soul). It was used by the U.S. military as a psychological weapons project against the Viet Cong in the Vietnam war. If you look it up and read the translation, then listen to the song again, you will hear it a whole different way."
My final question of our brief tête-à-tête was in regards to his view on how the apocalypse will finally come to pass. With the gossamer strings of album closer "Seelenos" lingering in my ears, I found his answer.
"The world won't end. We will."
Kim Kelly is doomed on Twitter.