Hällas – Excerpts from a Future Past (2017)

BACKGROUND

Hällas is a Swedish band that formed in 2011 in Jönköping. Their debut EP titled Hällas came out in 2015. Their first full length album is the one that I will review and discuss here. Hällas categorize themselves as “adventure rock”, which is a pretty good indication of what to expect musically and lyrically from them. However, if we were to use more established terminology to describe their sound, I would call them Progressive Rock, Hard Rock and early Heavy metal.

The first song I heard from Hällas was “Star Rider” (featured on this album). After hearing that song, I listened to this whole album. My first impression of them was “Uriah Heep meets Iron Maiden” or “This is what Iron Maiden would sound like if they were a 70’s Hard Rock/Prog-Rock band with a John Wetton- like vocalist”. There are also touches of Rush, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis in their sound. All the songs on the album are credited to Hällas as a group.

Members of Hällas:

Tommy Alexandersson (Bass & vocals)

Alexander Moraitis (Guitar)

Marcus Pettersson (Guitar)

Kasper Eriksson (Drums)

Nicklas Malmqvist (Keyboards)

Produced by Nicklas Malmqvist

Cover art

The colours on the cover art are beautiful. It’s very eye catching, and I love the mixture of forest and fields with outer space. The cover has a sense of hybridity between fantasy and science fiction. Coincidentally, this is a good indicator for the lyrical content and the story that is told throughout the album.

Spotify link to the album:

The Astral Seer

This might be my favourite song on the album. I just love everything about it. As an album opener it’s also a great choice. The song starts with an electric guitar playing a picking melody. Drums enter at the end of the melodic phrase along with a church bell (because why not?!). The guitar repeats the picking motif four times, and each time the drums enter in a new way. At the end of the fourth repetition the motif and the drums slow down and the final chime of the church bell rings out.

All of a sudden the whole band (minus the keyboards) comes in at the same time and plays a rhythmically interesting yet melodic phrase. Towards the end of this part, a Hammond organ swells in to the mix and the whole band come in to the verse. Musically, the verse sounds like something from Uriah Heep’s early 70’s period. The vocals enter, and Alexandersson’s vocals are interesting. He has a John Wetton (King Crimson, Asia among others) quality to his voice, which I would describe as somewhat “smoky”.

After the first verse comes what is possibly my favourite moment of the song. The guitars play a harmonized melody over a steady drum beat.  The bass and Hammond organ provide the harmonic backdrop which sounds like classic Iron Maiden. In fact, this whole part would sound like Seventh Son of a Seventh Son-era (1988) Iron Maiden if the Hammond organ was switched for a synth pad, the guitars had more distortion and if the bass was “galloping” and more up-front in the mix.

After the harmonized guitar melody part ends, the band signal the beginning of something new with a small “fanfare” that reminds me of a part from Deep Purple’s “Child in Time”. The second verse is much the same as the first verse. The verse music continues, but the vocals drop out, giving way for a mid-tempo melodic organ solo. Alexandersson’s vocals come back after this over a new chord sequence.

Malmqvist then plays a shredding organ solo. Stylistically, I would say that his playing style (on this solo) is more akin to Ken Hensley’s (Uriah Heep) than Jon Lord’s (Deep Purple). While I like both Hensley and Lord as players, Lord was more of a virtuoso and occasionally added some flashiness to his solos. Hensley was not as much a virtuoso, but he always played in service of the song (which I prefer over flashiness), which makes sense, because he was the primary songwriter of the band. Malmqvist does a very fine job striding the balance between Hensley’s and Lord’s style while not sounding like he’s copying them.

The solo segues into a calmer transition part dominated by the Hammond organ and a guitar. This leads into my second favourite part of the song which is a progressive Rush-sounding part in an odd time signature. It also sees the introduction of a warm, retro synth. The part ends with an ascending melodic line that leads into a straight 4/4 part over which Pettersson or Moraitis plays a very well-constructed and melodic solo. A third verse then enters and the song ends with the same Deep Purple-like riff/fanfare that preceded the second verse.

This song is epic, and makes a statement of what we can expect from this band and album: Progressive Hard Rock with a touch of warm analogue synthesizers.

Repentance

“Repentance”‘s intro grabs your attention straight away as if to say “No time for rest, the adventure has just begun!”.  The verse is driven by the Hammond organ and two guitars and sounds quite aggressive despite the instruments hardly having any distortion.

The verse is followed by a lengthy instrumental featuring a choir and harmonized guitars. This truly is adventure rock. The interlude slows down after a while and gives way to a quieter part. This quieter part is however no less catchy. Alexandersson pushes his voice to a higher register at times while the drums and organ keep a steady head-bopping groove. After the vocals exit, the drums and organ keep the same groove going while a synth that would fit perfectly in the Stranger Things theme comes in and adds ambience. Alexandersson now provides an almost jazzy walking bass line over this retro soundscape and the guitars then enter and play a great catchy harmonized melody. In the background you can hear a subtle keyboard playing “stabbing” parts, as a horn section would do.

The song picks up speed again and gets heavier and the vocals enter again and seamlessly segue into the second verse. The song ends with a harmonized guitar part which then slows down and the song fades out on the sound of the Hammond organ.

Nebulon’s Tower

The song starts with the sound of wind as slow drums and an organ gently fades in. A harmonized guitar melody then enters, followed by the bass. This is an instrumental song, about 2 minutes long and is probably meant to bridge “Repentance” and the next song. It would be easy to think that a 2-minute long instrumental track would just be a throwaway, but that is definitely not the case here! This is probably the calmest moment on the record, despite the chord sequence being quite epic and dramatic. Apart from the harmonized guitars, the organ provides the main backdrop of the song. Eventually a choir comes in as well. This song would fit perfectly in the instrumental album The Lord of the Rings (1970) by Swedish organist Bo Hansson. The song fades out with the sound of wind and rain which transitions seamlessly into the next song.

The Golden City of Semyra

This song starts where the last song left off, with the sound of wind and rain. Eventually we hear the sound of a war drum and several male voices crying out as if keeping time while marching.

Guitars, bass and drums then come in with a groove reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “A National Acrobat”. The verses have a peaceful feeling to them and describe what the city of Semyra would have been like in its heyday.

A bridge then comes in and the music picks up in pace. After the bridge we get an instrumental passage that shifts seamlessly from 4/4 to 6/8. This part leads into the solo section which features an interesting guitar sound (it sounds like the guitar has a rotary effect on it, like those that organs usually have). In the background you can also hear what sounds like piano strings being picked, which is very cool! The only other examples I can think of where that has been used is on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) and the long- lost Smile Sessions (2011, but recorded 1966-67). I’m also a big fan of the fact that Malmqvist introduces an electric piano in this part, playing an almost jazzy accompaniment.

The Hard Rock comes back with an organ swell and Alexandersson’s vocals, which lead into a faster section where Pettersson and Moraitis do what they do best: play melodic passages in harmony. After this, the song slows down once more and gets very quiet with the vocals and lyrics taking centre stage. The song goes into Hard Rock mode one last time.

This song plays a lot with dynamics, and I like the different interesting sounds in the song, like the rotary guitar and the picked piano strings.

Star Rider

The song starts off with the sound of wind and dripping water. This gives the listener the impression of being in a cave. A church organ and synth enter and play slowly shifting chords in a style reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. Drums and bass then fade in as the organ fades out. The drum beat has some similarities to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”.

A super catchy harmonized guitar melody is then introduced (this may be the catchiest melody on the entire record!). The vocals then enter, which are also very memorable. This song has the best vocal performance by Alexandersson on the album, in my opinion.

The chorus is musically identical to the verse but the vocal melody and lyrics are very memorable. “Star Rider!” Simple and effective.

After the first chorus we get an interlude with a synth playing an arpeggio. In the background, the guitars just play one chord, but the tone of the guitars is amazing!

You can really hear the John Wetton-like quality in Alexandersson’s voice in the second verse when he sings “No further can we go. But our quest stands above. We have to find the Star Rider!”

After the second chorus we get a longer interlude with the synth playing the same arpeggio as before as Eriksson adds small drum fills and flourishes. The guitars then enter and play a riff while the synth continues in the background. This leads into an absolutely brilliant guitar solo. The way Pettersson or Moraitis (I don’t know who plays the solo) comes into the solo is amazing! A third chorus enters again, which ends on an epic multi-layered vocal singing “You can’t escape your fate!”

We then hear the interlude with synth arpeggio again while “Star Rider!” is repeated. A fun moment is introduced in the song when Alexandersson sings “Space Master!” which is followed by a down-piched evil and robotic laugh. These guys seem like they have a good sense of humour!

As mentioned previously, this was the first song from Hällas that I ever heard, and I was hooked instantly! Funnily enough, the song is the most unique sounding on the record. It has a Disco-like drum beat and follows conventional song writing structures- unlike the rest of the material on the album! Despite sounding different from the other tracks on the album it fits perfectly and I couldn’t imagine this album without “Star Rider”.

Shadow of the Templar

This song starts with a harmonized guitar melody playing what sounds like a minor scale as well as the Dorian mode. The intro therefore has a folky “Celtic” feeling reminiscent of Rainbow’s song “Starstruck”. We’re then treated to some unhinged organ playing which leads into the verse which has a strong Uriah Heep vibe.

After the second verse we get a slower Rush-sounding part in 6/8. Some old school synths and vocals appear over the Rush-like guitar riff. This happier sounding part turns into a menacing guitar picking melody with a synth solo. This part is really cool! At the end of the menacing part, a space-like voice enters and narrates the final part of the song’s story. This vocal effect reminds me of a similar thing Rush did at the end of their song “Cygnus X-1 part 1”. The space-voice’s narration ends on a cliff hanger, leaving the fate of the main character (Sir Hällas) left unknown.

Illusion Sky

The song starts in a calm and spacy way with a nice guitar picking melody in 6/8. Alexandersson’s vocals are calm and melodic in the verse.  The verse gives way to a faster but still sombre and reflective instrumental moment. The chords from the verse are played as a riff in 4/4 and the vocals enter again.

A Celtic sounding melody is played in unison on the guitar and organ in an odd time signature. A happy sounding Rush-like moment enters with a Moog synth providing strange noises. Another Celtic sounding melody enters and quickly morphs into a heavier Uriah Heep-like moment driven by organ. This instrumental section goes through many changes and ends with a sustained chord played on the organ.

The opening guitar line from “The Astral Seer” comes back in a calmer and slower way. The opening line of “The Astral Seer” is sung, followed by variations of the subsequent lines of the song. When the lyrics have been sung, the guitars play another slower Celtic sounding melody and a choir enters. The music gradually fades out while also getting drenched in more reverb, giving the song a Shoegaze-like atmosphere towards the end.

This song ties the album up nicely by reprising the incredibly strong opening guitar melody from “The Astral Seer”.

Production

The production sounds very warm and 70’s. Analogue synth sounds add to this warm production feel. The guitars on this album are hardly distorted at all, but this does not do a disservice to the album. I don’t think the album was ever meant to be “Metal”, but rather Hard Rock/Progressive Rock with touches of early Heavy Metal.

Final thoughts

This album should be very enjoyable for fans of 70’s Hard Rock and Progressive Rock such as Black Sabbath, Rush, Uriah Heep, Genesis and Pink Floyd.

On the first few listens, I thought it weird to place the two longest songs (“Shadow of the Templar” & “Illusion Sky”) back to back. But on repeated listens and while reading the lyrics, I realized that the band had no choice but to do this, as any other sequencing would completely mess up the story that’s told in the album.

Everybody in the band are very competent musicians, and they are good at writing and arranging songs. The strongest moments on the album in my opinion are “The Astral Seer”, “Star Rider” and “Illusion Sky”. However, there isn’t a weak moment on the album! I also want to show some love to the instrumental “Nebulon’s Tower”.

This album is actually the second instalment in what the band have called a trilogy. It starts with their debut EP Hällas (2015) and ends with their second full-length album Conundrum (2020). For anyone interested in hearing the full tale of the main character Sir Hällas, listen to Hällas and Conundrum as well.

I had the chance to see Hällas live on the very first night of their Conundrum– tour in january. For various reasons I didn’t end up going. I still regret not going, but I’m sure another chance will arise.

It will be interesting to see which lyrical direction Hällas will take on their next album.

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