It’s no secret that bands often have to sell their souls to get heard in a maelstrom of “cool”. In fact, for cult favourites Hell Is For Heroes, getting heard was only half the battle; it was being remembered that would ultimately prove to be the greatest challenge.
Cast your mind back if you can. It’s 2003 and the embers of the British winter are glowing in the cold February sun. Christina Aguilera is about to top the UK singles chart for a fourth time with some cliché-ridden ballad for the tramp-stamp generation, whilst Justin Timberlake and Massive Attack jostle for position in the UK album charts. Post-Hardcore and the emerging Emotional Hardcore movements are thriving on both sides of the Atlantic, with breakout acts like At the Drive-In and Glassjaw redefining the roles of punk and metal in modern alternative rock. Nu-Metal has been whittled down to its lowest common denominator and in its wake, the Long Island brand of Emo has given a voice to a generation of hitherto, beta-males – marginalised by the western expectation that boys don’t cry.
Amidst this transatlantic clamour, the UK’s own Post-Hardcore scene is birth-squeezing some ferociously raw and honest acts that the industry isn’t entirely sure what to do with. Bands such as Biffy Clyro, Rueben, Hundred Reasons and Poison the Well are all winning the hearts and minds of gig goers and scoring plays on MTV2 and Scuzz. This unique brand of alternative rock is not easily packaged or particularly palatable. A&R reps all over are scratching their heads and make generalised nods to Fugazi and the DC Hardcore scene but none of that really matters. People are talking. A new subculture of British Post-Hardcore seems to be evolving and right at the forefront, brandishing their passionately crushing chorus lines are the mighty, London-based five-piece, Hell Is For Heroes.
Aptly titled, their debut album, The Neon Handshake, was astutely conscious of the role that the record industry would play in the emergence of British Post-Hardcore in the early 00s. Its immaculate studio sheen smacks of that Californian production value that was so trendy at the time, yet it is also an album that possesses an inherent timelessness of the song craft that serves as a reminder of how hungry the industry was for a flagship artist in this emerging British Post-hardcore scene. Even the opening track of Rueben’s seminal album, Racecar Is Racecar Backwards, cites HIFH as a formidable force. In singer Jamie Lenman’s typically, sarcastic tone; “Hell Is For Heroes / they’ve got another single out / my contemporaries / a Top 40 smash no doubt”.
Steve Albini once described signing to a major label as being like dragging oneself through “…a trench, about four-feet wide and five-feet deep, maybe sixty-yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit”, but HIFH were no strangers to the empty promises of A&R reps and the small-print-Industry mentality that dug out this shitty trench. Two of the band’s members were seasoned veterans of Alt-Rock, having served their time in the mighty Symposium; and so, when HIFH signed to EMI, they knew exactly what they were getting into and exactly what they were getting out of it. They intended, it seemed, to come out of this with their integrity intact.
Opening track ‘Five Kids Go’ declared, in no uncertain terms, their statement of intent with a ferocious passion: “Fuck your well-trained, golden handshakes / All we need is space to breathe.” This was intelligent and philosophical rock music with rousing social commentary simmering below the surface. It boasted both delicate sensitivity as well as cutting riffs and stomping choruses. If anything was going to sell this record, it was going to be its honesty and introspection.
At the helm of their line-up was singer Justin Schlosberg – now a media lecturer and activist. His emotive lyrical poetry helps to contextualise the band’s tumultuous relationship with the industry. For instance, on the popular single ‘I Can Climb Mountains’, he claims he can “swallow failure just to learn” – a sentiment that smacks of maturity and rises above the “honest lies” and “fake smiles” of the A&R sharks. The chill-inducing ‘Night Vision’ serves as a subtle dig at the hollow “empty promises” of the corporate big-wigs they no doubt encountered along the way and hints, almost prophetically, at the band’s impending rise to dizzy heights and ultimate fade into obscurity; “And now our wings are painted gold / They’ll make idols of us yet / Empty promises they sold / Will reach their best before dates soon…I can see it all”. It’s moments like this that make you wonder if they knew from the start the battle they were facing, especially given the band’s name which was taken from a 1960s’ war movie starring Steve McQueen.
Schlosberg’s raucous vocals soar above an obstinate wall of contemporary guitar work and power-house drumming from founders William McGonagle and Joe Birch. Add to that the beautifully complimentary guitar and bass contributions from Tom O’Donoghue and James Findlay and the result is a truly emotive and powerful listening experience. The stomping anthem ‘Cut Down’ throws unyielding slices of guitar at the listener, while the descent from unnerving darkness to malevolent ferocity in ‘Few Against the Many’ reminds the listener that this band could swing the dynamics from ice cold to red hot with graceful ease.
Recorded at the infamous Sound City, L.A., this powerful debut was held back, allowing the release of three of its strongest songs to carve a path and capture the hearts of a disenfranchised youth culture who were searching for a style of music to call their own – a new Grunge maybe? Following its modest success in the UK, Kerrang readers voted it one of the best British rock albums of all time, albeit number fifty-eight in that list.
HIFH certainly earned themselves more than a footnote in British rock history: without achieving the longevity that some of their contemporaries managed, they made a huge impression on an entire generation. They planted the flag for a subgenre of British rock that is very much over-looked, despite how influential it was on subsequent subgenres such as Math Rock and Post-Rock.
Fifteen years later, HIFH have just revisted this underground British classic, along with a select few of the venues that they frequented whilst performing it back in 2003. They were joined by two familiar names from the scene; A and Vex Red, in support. The Neon Handshake is getting reissued on Big Scary Monsters – a label whose current roster owe much to the scene that HIFH helped establish. The label itself states on the pre-order page that, “In the very, very early days of BSM few bands meant more to us than Hell Is For Heroes, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they not only shaped our own musical tastes but also helped cultivate the kind of sound we still so proudly release today.” Indeed, the label also put out a vinyl of Rueben’s last album, a full decade after its initial release, showing their support for this influential movement of British Post-Hardcore.
If anything, this fifteen-year anniversary tour proves one thing: the torch that was lit by HIFH may have burned bright and fast, but it was never been doused completely; and it will be fondly remembered by those who were there in the cold February sun of 2003.