The Fantastic Sounds of Guitars…Unlimited! – The Hellmenn (Buttercup)
The quick version? Fourteen tracks. The cover doesn’t lie. Wall-to-wall guitars. Rocks harder than a Manly ferry on a cross-Sydney Harbour run in a 40-knot gale. The long version? Read on…
“The Fantastic Sounds of” has the blessing of Dave “Spliff” Hopkins, their mercurial guitarist, and frontman Ben Brown, whose stellar “surfing dead” artwork has not only adorned their past and present releases but those of Massappeal, Red Kross and Bored! They were the core of the band. Hopkins now lives in WEstern Australia and plays in Purple Urchin, while Brown is still a stellar artist.
The Hellmenn sprang from the loins of the Sydney musical underground in the halcyon late ‘80s, rolling out a long-player and numerous EPs and singles until grunge, random breath testing, poker machines and venue licensing red tape sucked the marrow out of the local live scene in the early ‘90s. The Hellmenn were proud products of the city’s Northern Beaches - the place that spawned Midnight Oil, Asteroid B612, the Celibate Rifles, to name some notables. There were many more.
Sydney always had two beachside breeding grounds for music: The Northern Beaches and Cronulla (aka The Shire). Each saw a procession of the best bands from outside their immediate orbit march through its pubs and clubs when the inner-city scene started to explode. It was the Johnny Appleseed Effect at work.
Manly and Cronulla were, and to some degree remain, Sydney’s insular peninsulas. As a denizen of the latter, I saw The Hellmenn, owned some of their records but embraced local acts like the Trilobites more fulsomely. The Hellmenn were good but there were so many choices…but “The Fantastic Sounds of Guitars…Unlimited!” shows their sound has aged well.
Hellmenn signed with Sydney’s mighty Waterfront Records, which gave them a direct association with the thrash and skate bands from the USA. They played the first Big Day Out and toured as support to Hank Rollins, but moved to a major label and into a new musical phase, without being able to leave that past behind.
“The Fantastic Sounds of Guitars…Unlimited!” is a compilation that focuses on the surf-and-destroy/skate-punk side of a band that had another more esoteric, trippy thing going on. Having the “rockers” lined up one after the other like beers on the bar at the Mona Vale Hotel works a treat. The band itself once described its sound as a collision of “Black Flag with Black Sabbath by the way of an environmental manifesto” and that’s what you’ll hear on this LP, limited to 300 copies.
Picking highlights, it’s pretty hard to skate past early track “Locked In” with its explosive, hardcore rhythms and frenzied Hopkins guitarwork. The fearsome “Tripping Priest” is proof that cassocks and LSD don’t mix. Ben Brown’s ragged wail lives on. And “Manly” is more than just a shitty, cheating football team.
The Hellmenn were on “Hard To Beat”, the rightly much-lauded Aussie Stooges tribute brought out by Dave Laing, and their version of “Surf and Destroy”, included here, is one of the few covers to hold a candle to the original. It makes the Dictators’ take sound perfunctory. Lyrically, "Look Don't Touch" is a cousin to "Ritch Bitch".
“Sleep” is the lightest moment and a song that should have gained wider currency. If “Longarm” isn’t a surf movie soundtrack staple, I’m Midget Farelly and Brown delivers a great vocal against a background of some searing guitars. “The Trip” (a B side) again showcases Spliff’s wild riffing and an adept engine room. There's always a room on any compilaiton for a country-fied drinking song with wit and "If Only You Were Lonely" fits the bill. If only its youthful sentiment didn't ring so true.
There are still copies here but probably not for much longer.