It’s weird to think that Hank Von Hell has only released one solo to date. He seems like such a unique and larger-than-life presence within modern music, so much so that might’ve overshadowed exactly what he has done in his career so far. That’s not to downplay his achievements by any means, particularly as the frontman of Turbonegro whose very acerbic and provocative style gave them a lot of leverage within ‘90s punk. Fronting a band like that does instill a perception that can be difficult to remove, and as such, it can be seen to both overshadow 2018’s solo debut Egomania, but also amplify it in a way that moves the focus away from Hans Husby stepping out on his own, and back onto the Hank Von Hell persona. That isn’t a criticism either, and Husby’s honing of his own character and identity has once again placed him into the rockstar mould inhabited within Turbonegro, only now being sober and clean and with doors open past his old band’s death-punk sound. In itself, it doesn’t sophomore effort Dead to untouchable levels of hype, but the pedigree on the mic and behind the scenes is significant for what could otherwise be considered a pretty niche release.
Granted, Dead’s loftiness is more in principle than practice, but it’s definitely worth noting where a lot of its reference points lie, drawing in various aesthetic, stylistic and thematic degrees from Ghost, Alice Cooper and, of course, Turbonegro, but tied together in a way that’s uncannily reminiscent of Rob Zombie. It comes from the rather ramshackle structural composition this album has, where ideas seem to fall out rather than adhere to any specific sequence, and that gives Dead a noticeable sense of unevenness that doesn’t do a lot for it. It’s not an album with a lot of inherent staying power because of it, and while its peaks are definitely worth celebrating, they aren’t representative of a full body of work, and that averages out to Dead being a decent but somewhat messy listen.
To be fair though, that messiness is generally a product of the sonic breadth that Husby pulls from and not his execution, given that he’s frequently good at dealing out an impersonation of whoever he decides to pull from at any given time. And note the word ‘impersonation’ that isn’t being used as flavour or hyperbole in this case, because Dead largely serves as a vehicle for which Husby can use to insert himself into other bands who are chasing a similar death-pop style. It’s not like he does too badly either, particularly when drawing from the well of Ghost in shimmery goth-pop opulence on Blackened Eyes and Disco, the latter of which even has a key change that the genuine article would likely be proud of. It helps that the embrace of camp and flagrant bombast is what dictates Dead’s writing, and that’s fairly easy to transpose to the punked-up hard rock of The 69 Eyes or indeed, Turbonegro themselves on Velvet Hall, or the embrace of darker tones in an arena rock setting à la Alice Cooper on 13 In 1. The references to those other acts are deliberate too, if only to map out the lack of a real cogent structure on Dead. It’s hard to really discern what the end goal is beyond collating the sounds of various acts for Husby to try his hand at replicating them, but with a blocky transition between individual styles and narration from Frankie Loyal that implies some greater storyline here, the ambition that looms above this album is clearly still out of reach. Perhaps the most telling thing in that scenario comes on Radio Shadow, in which Sum 41’s Cone McCaslin and Dave Baksh have co-writing and performing credits on a song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place at all on their last album. It can make Dead feel slight and lacking in greater substance beyond what’s on the surface, as it doesn’t yield much hope in the way for longevity.
But it’s still tempting to be charitable to this album all the same, especially when its purpose is effectively fulfilled by how well Husby actually does with these sounds. He’s not got the most personality in the world but it fits for what he’s trying to do here, and it does open the door to play off Guernica Mancini’s more refined foil on Crown that honestly one of the best songs here. And if nothing else, he can reliably knock out a chorus on Disco or Forever Animal that has a fitting amount of bombast to connect for the brief time it’s around. As short on its own ideas as Dead might be, it’s not like it doesn’t have the means to use the ones it pilfers to good effect, and the fact there’s no real self-indulgence and pretension that’s gone into this means it’s all kept as light as it necessarily should be. On top of all that, it’s always well-produced with a good command of modulation to keep its tones exactly where they need to be, something that only adds to the pile of how easy this album is to listen and mostly enjoy.
It’s definitely more in the realm of snack music, where it’s effectively empty calories that suffices in short bursts, but there’s still a need for albums like that, and Dead is a good example. That’s not to say it’s amazing or that it wouldn’t have been nice for Husby to use his reference points as a basis rather than the entire thing, but it’s generally likable enough to avoid becoming bogged down by flaws and revel in how enjoyable it can be. For as short-lived as that enjoyment is, it’s definitely there, and while it is, it’s hard to deny that Dead really knows how to utilise what it’s got to a solid standard.
For fans of: Ghost, Alice Cooper, Backyard Babies
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Dead’ by Hank Von Hell is out now on Music For Nations / Sony Music Entertainment.