There are two reasons I can think of explaining why someone wouldn't see that one coming for a PDX special.
1. That someone has no idea how he or she ended up on Terminal Sound Nuisance and will probably swiftly escape from the blog (you can stay by the way, it is not a select country club).
2. Or that someone is thinking that dealing with Hellshock is too easy and I should spend time on more obscure bands that are not loved properly (you can also stay, I will try to make it more interesting than you expect).
Hellshock were undeniably a game-changer. I remember that, when their first album came out, everyone I knew, whatever their age, was into really it. Of course, there was banter about the over-the-top metal sound, but it was mostly good-natured and I think everyone agreed that "Only the dead know the end of the war" was bloody brilliant (I have no idea if Hellshock were aware that such a title had already been used by Brainstorm for their excellent 1989 demo). And by the way, Plato never really said that, it was apparently erroneously attributed to him by one American general. And yes, I have been to a Plato message board to check the information and, believe me, the level of nerdism on this was at least as impressive as the one you can witness on boards dedicated to Japanese hardcore. Scary shit.
And yet, I don't think that anyone could have predicted (including the band) that, in 2003, the subgenre Hellshock so cleverly revisited would make the band so popular in DIY punk circles. Just think about the PDX context for a moment. Although there were local bands that could be seen as being rather successful at what they did, touring and releasing records (like Atrocious Madness, Remains of the Day, even Blood Spit Nights), some others pretty much remained local and short-lived side-projects (who really remembers bands like Midnight, Bomb Heaven, Ausgebombt or Assassinate in 2016?) which does not mean that they were bad at what they did, just that their existence were transient, maybe due to a lack of recording opportunities, or a lack of enthusiasm or motivation, or just busy schedules, or bad karma, but that is not the point. The fact is that Hellshock, whatever their intents were when they started (I am guessing something like "How about doing a metal punk band with a lot of early Peaceville worship? Who's with me? I'm buying the beers for the first practice!"), really struck a chord and became one of PDX's most popular punk bands of the 00's, prompted an actual crust revival and unearthed a forgotten term that would spread like fire in the years to follow: stenchcore.
I have been trying to think about the reasons that allowed for such a fate. Of course, the music is excellent, but more often than not, it is not enough. There could be the fact that Hellshock was made up of people who had played or were still playing in well-liked bands like Axiom, Detestation, Atrocious Madness, Religious War or Remains of the Day, something which could indicate quality. But again, it cannot account for the unanimously good reception of the band and such an argument tends to discard the wider context in which Hellshock's rise took place. Here is my theory: Hellshock were the first great crust band of the decade. I don't mean this in terms of chronology but in terms of sound, aesthetics and songwriting as I think Hellshock were the first genuinely 00's crust band. By the very early 00's, the genre was clearly fading. The 90's eurocrust wave had lost its inspiration and dynamics and only Filth of Mankind and Χειμερία Νάρκη (aka Hibernation) were still flying the flag of old-school crust in Europe, yet, as fantastic as these sadly underrated bands are, they were still, I feel, inherently 90's bands in spirit and sound. Older classic bands like Extinction of Mankind, Misery or Warcollapse were either in a state of transition or on hiatus and were still working on finding their 00's footing sound-wise. The Japanese crust scene was also changing and a lot of 90's bands were no more with the exception of two bands that may have been an inspiration to Hellshock, not only in terms of musical influence, but also, if not more especially, in terms of intentional referentiality: AGE and Effigy, both of which eventually shared split records with Hellshock. In parallel, dark, heavy but tuneful heavy-hitting hardcore punk bands like Tragedy or From Ashes Rise were becoming more and more popular with a sound that was essentially crust-free (yep, sorry everyone, neither band were ever "CRUST"). So it is in this local and global environment that, like a dreadlocked phoenix, the new face of crust rose in the 00's.
But what made Hellshock special then? Not unlike Atrocious Madness, Hellshock took the sense of Japanese intertextuality and applied it to vintage late 80's crust while keeping that PDX punk sound. Let's get real here. If I ordered the first album (the cd version on Yellow Dog as it came out before the vinyl) from Hardcore Holocaust, it was pretty much because the band had used the Antisect font, had a name starting with the prefix "Hell" like Hellbastard and had Mid from Deviated Instinct draw their cover. It felt gratifying to me that I could spot such references, I felt Hellshock were nodding at me and I literally thought "how could it go wrong?". And of course, it could not, the album is mind-blowing and I definitely overplayed it at the time (to such an extent that I just could not listen to it for a few years afterwards). Hellshock were, without the shadow of a doubt, THE crust band of my generation, something that they even seemed to confirm with the use of a new word I had not heard previously, "stenchcore". And I was definitely not the only one either, it is no wonder that so many "stenchcore" bands followed in their wake. Of course, reflecting on all this now, I realize that the crust signifiers they disseminated on their works derived from Japanese crust, especially Effigy and SDS, not unlike the nerdy relation between Atrocious Madness and Gloom really. But even though I got Effigy's "From Hell" at the same time (possibly even in the same order from HH) and I noticed that they also borrowed a font from a classic band (Axegrinder), Hellshock's sound was more accessible, it felt more modern and that was exactly, albeit unconsciously, what I was looking for at the time: the marriage between old-school crust and a crisp modern hardcore sound. Ironically, I could not make it to their one and only Paris date in december 2003 when they were touring with Consume as I was living in Manchester at the time, and Hellshock is a band that I have never ever seen live to this day. Gutted.
But I have been sharing too much already and I forget that I have an actual record to talk about here so let's get going. This self-titled Ep was recorded in late 2003 (no exact date but during the winter apparently) but probably released in 2004 on Whisper In Darkness, a very classy and tasteful label run by Frank from Atrocious Madness. The two songs were part of a larger recording session that saw the remaining four songs appear on a split 10'' with fellow, crust reference-crazed Effigy, released on Wicked Witch. At that time, the band was prolific as they had already recorded no less than 12 songs in April that ended up on the first album, on the split Ep with Consume (both of them released in 2003) and on the "Portland City Hard Punk" compilation Lp that only saw the light of day in 2005 and also included Lebenden Toten, Dog Soldiers and Assassinate. For some reason, the cd version of "Only the dead" included 11 of the 12 songs of that recording session as one song from the comp was left out (I can't think of a good reason for that discrepancy but here is is). The late 03 session was also the last one with Dan from Religious War on second guitar as he was later replaced by Ripper (possibly a nickname?). Apart from Dan (aka Ratgunner apparently), the culprits on this Ep were Keith on the drums (previously in Bacteria, at the time also drumming for Remains of the Day and later in Warcry), Hopper on the guitar (too many bands to be exhaustive at this point but he also played in Assassinate at that time), Derek on the bass (formerly in little-known Maneurysm with future Wartorn members from Wisconsin and also in ROTD at the time) and Joel on vocals (previously a drummer for Axiom and Atrocious Madness). All I can infer from this is that there must have been a law among the PDX punx that required everyone to have at least three active bands at all time. Still implemented by the way.
This Ep may actually be my favourite Hellshock record. Although it is not as heavy and gruff and instantly appealing as the first Lp, I feel it is a more accomplished work and one of the most cohesive crust Ep's of the decade. The sound is clearer, very crisp and does not rely on brutality and power like on the album, but is rather more oriented toward texture, mood and atmosphere. The feelings of anguish, ominousness and gloom are rendered perfectly through the production which really highlights the actual songs and the songwriting intent (something that the band could not really replicate on subsequent Ep's). I would also argue that, while the songs from the spring recording session were heavily influenced with UK bands like Onslaught, Sacrilege and Bolt Thrower (I spotted a couple of "borrowed leads") and German metal acts like Kreator and Sodom (everyone and his mother seemed to have been into Sodom in PDX at that time for some reason and the very name "Hellshock" derived from Sodom's song "Shellshock"), these are more reminiscent of vintage Misery, Antisect, Nausea, Genital Deformities or indeed SDS and retrospectively feel stronger, more subtle and potent. The Ep format fits amazingly with the two songs, "Arrows to the poor" and "Last sunset", that are very different in their construction but work perfectly together as a single. "Arrows to the poor" has an incantatory, anguished vibe of insanity with Amebix/Killing Joke drumming and deceptively dissonant guitars that brings to mind Misery at their bleakest. I absolutely love how the martial-sounding verse merges with the very epic, angry chorus, it feels like a shift from an eerie, suffocating nightmare to harsh reality. The second song starts with a long, dirgy, mournful introduction (I am really reminded of Apocalypse and Xaotiko Telos here) before exploding into pummeling metal punk with angry gruff vocals that feels like a modern adaptation of early Axegrinder and Misery. Top songwriting here with a very dynamic, crunchy sound that is sometimes lacking in this then genre-to-be. Hellshock did not go all out Bolt Thrower, the riffs are simple and smart but the rhythmics and the arrangements are superb, the bass is both omnipresent but only really surfaces to offer a catchy hook, the vocals are gruff indeed but remain intelligible and don't have that forceful constipated tone that is often a deal-breaker for me. They did not overdo anything because, probably from experience, they knew that more is not always better. There is a definite dark and heavy hardcore vibe here as well, especially in some guitar leads that scream "PDX punk", in the textures and in the overall conception that is very focused and self-conscious. It is both a fantastic reworking of classic metal punk bands and yet completely of its time.
To conclude, just a quick word about the "stenchcore" tag that Hellshock embraced completely at that time. I distinctly remember Hardcore Holocaust selling early Hellshock materials as "PDX stenchcore" and the phrase was even carved on the actual vinyl on their side of the split Ep with Consume (who had "Seattle raggies" carved on theirs which really cracks me up). Following the band's success, many bands started to play "stenchcore" and what started as an inside joke, that had more to do with hygiene and the addition of the "core" suffix to anything and everything in the 80's, became an actual subgenre. I am very much undecided about the term and, if I understand its usefulness for clarity's sake and because the term "crust" has been so ill-treated for years, I must say that I am still a little puzzled and unconvinced as to what it has come to represent, namely badly played death-metal with far too few slices of hardcore punk in it for me to relate to it. I am sure that Hellshock's use of the term was just another nod toward the aesthetics and terminology of old-school crust, possibly influenced with the 90's Japanese crust scene that basically invented a new term for each new band, and certainly not an actual statement about genre. But in the end, it became one and what they started got strictly reproduced with less inspiration (be it musically or lyrically), less direction and more double-bass drums so that when I read "stenchcore" today I am often expecting the proverbial "Bolt-Thrower-with-a-D-beat" bands and I doubt the world needs many more of these.