To Hell and Back: An Interview With Andy Sneap of Hell

Human Remains
Nuclear Blast

Every once in a rare while you might come across an album that strikes you on such an instinctive level that your immediate reaction is, why on earth has nobody told me about this band before? When yours truly first heard Hell’s Human Remains early this year, I couldn’t believe my ears. Here was a New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) relic I’d never heard before with a style that would have catered perfectly to my tastes back then I was a 14-year-old headbanger in 1985. It has the classic NWOBHM riffs that always grab me like no other metal riffs, there’s a flamboyance like the best proto-power metal bands of 26 years ago, it can be dark as all get-out, from the fun cheesiness of Grim Reaper to the more straight-faced menace of Mercyful Fate, and it has a knack for theatricality much like Lizzy Borden did way back when.

A re-recording of ten of its original demos from the early ’80s, Human Remains is not only a phenomenal album that makes modern power metal sound passé, but most importantly, to me, anyway, it feels like it was custom made for the 14-year-old me. And chances are, I’m probably not the only person over the age of 35 that feels the same way upon hearing it.

If you’ve never heard of Hell, don’t worry, most of us hadn’tm either. Formed in Nottingham, England by former members of fairly well-known NWOBHM bands Paralex and Race Against Time, the band build a small, devoted local following but was unable to attract much interest from outside the Midlands. It was too ornate and flamboyant at a time when the more off-the-street image and confrontational style of the burgeoning thrash metal scene; coming at the tail end of the NWOBHM, it was simply too passé and weird for the press and record labels to care about.

By the time Hell did manage to land a record deal, their label, Belgium’s Mausoleum Records, went under before a debut album was recorded. The band split in 1986, and singer/mastermind Dave Halliday took his own life a year later.

Among the band’s local fans was a kid named Andy Sneap, a guitar student of Halliday’s, who would go on to form well-known UK thrash band Sabbat and then make an even bigger name for himself in the 1990s as a producer and mixer. Pure, silly luck would prove to be the catalyst that would eventually yield a band reunion, a high-profile deal with Nuclear Blast, and ultimately one of the best metal albums of 2011, with Sneap as the ringleader.

“It wasn’t something that we planned that much, to be honest,” Sneap says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “I’d met Tim [Bowler, drummer] and Tony [Speakman, bassist] in the social circle that I hang out with back home, we just crossed paths again. We’d talk about the old days when the band used to play, and there’s a lot of good memories from when the band played back then. We’d always said how good the songs were and what a shame it was that the band never did anything.

“And then Kev [Bower, guitarist], no one knew where Kev had gone, he disappeared off the face of the planet. His son turns out to be a metalhead, and he’s got all these albums by Nevermore and Trivium, bands I’d mixed and produced, and one day Kev was looking through his CD collection and saw my name on all these CDs, and realized it was the kid that was down at the front who had been following the band around,” he laughs. “His son didn’t believe that his dad knew me, he got in touch with me and said, ‘My dad reckons he knows you, is it true?’ And then we realized we’d found Kev again. So it was brilliant.”

David Halliday

If Sneap, who would fill in as second guitarist, and the three surviving members of Hell were going to get this project off the ground, however, they would have to find a lead singer to replace Halliday. Not an easy task, either, as Halliday’s ostentatious vocal melodies require a singer with tremendous range. Incredibly, the perfect replacement was found in the form of Kevin Bower’s brother David. An accomplished professional actor (having done everything from Shakespeare to childrens’ programs), not only does he possess a strong tenor voice that’s scarily similar to Halliday’s, but he also brings a sense of theatricality to Hell. When he sings on epic tracks like “Macbeth” and “Blasphemy and the Master”, he sells it like few metal singers do these days. He’s an absolute force on the record, making it even more unique than it already is.

“I never knew he was Kev’s brother, I never knew him before he came along to do a voice-over on the album,” Sneap admits. “Kevin said, ‘Let’s get my brother in because he’s a trained actor.’ He came down and I got on brilliantly with him, he’s got a great work ethic. He was going to do his voice-over, he does a lot of commercial work as well, and he did that and it sounded great, he did it in a couple of takes. And then he started singing along to one of the songs and I realized how remarkably similar he was to Dave Halliday. It was amazing what he was doing. I was like, ‘We’ve had this guy right under our noses for two years and you haven’t told me about him!’ [laughs] I think there was some sibling rivalry there! But as soon as I got Dave down a couple more times to start singing on the album, he really settled into the vocalist mode. He absolutely nailed it on the album, I think.”

Of course, one has to wonder what the family of Dave Halliday thinks of the band carrying on without its original frontman and visionary. “I know Dave’s sister really well, and she’s thrilled to bits with it,” Sneap says. “And actually when Dave died, in his will he left the rights to all of the songs to me…At least Dave’s getting recognized for the talent that he was. Which was the whole point of this for me. With the whole tape trading scene and the internet now, the demos have gotten out they’re and they’ve been bootlegged.

“That was another reason for wanting to do this album, just to kind of stop all that. Obviously the guys aren’t seeing any money from anything that’s getting pressed off the old demos. Obviously Dave’s family isn’t getting anything, even though there’s 250 on red vinyl in Greece somewhere. I want the guys to get something for their hard work. That’s why we’re doing the bonus disc with all the demos on it as well, so hopefully we’ve put all the bootlegging a bit in the background.”

The respect Sneap has for his mentor is clear, and he’s all too willing to talk about just how big an influence Halliday had on his life. “I first met him when I was 12 years old, just a kid,” he says. “He was this insane older brother character for me. He just took me under his wing, it was weird. Once he saw the amount of time I was putting effort into my playing, he really tried to keep me on the straight and narrow. I had a tough time at school, I didn’t do any qualifications, I never went there, I used to bunk off school and go to guitar lessons…I wouldn’t have gone on to do Sabbat because we wouldn’t have met each other, he actually introduced me to Fraser at a local show.

“We formed Sabbat two weeks later. Also the drummer Simon who was in Sabbat, was introduced to us through Tim, who was Hell’s drummer as well. So they had a huge input on my musical career. I wouldn’t be in the music business if it hadn’t been for Dave Halliday.”

So what was it that drew the young Andy Sneap to hell’s music in the first place? “Obviously I’d started having lessons with Dave and I’d been aware of his other band Race Against Time, but I wasn’t aware of this new band Hell he was putting together,” he reminisces. “It was a friend who had introduced me to him, a lad in the year above me at school took me to one of his shows, and it was just amazing. It was in the back room of this pub, there was all these fireworks going off, smoke, it was like a full-on arena show going on in the back of this pub. It was amazing.

“They were on such a tight budget that there was so much attention to detail and professionalism for a band that was just playing pubs and local clubs. They stood out from the rest, and the actual quality of the songwriting, the ideas behind the songs, it was so, so professional for a band that wasn’t professional, they didn’t have the resources, everything was done on such a cheap scale but with a professional outlook.

“It was a good work ethic, it was a good thing to see. And it still stands up, even knowing the guys now, dealing with them now, although I’ve had an awfully lot more experience in the music business than they have, they’re still very easy to get along with and very professional, they’ll do anything. They’re very serious about what they want to do. More so than the guys in Sabbat, who have had years of experience,” he laughs. “It’s great fun to play with a group of guys that I get along well with, who have got that sort of attitude.”

As for the process of re-recording those old songs, Sneap says the arrangements were hardly tweaked at all, a testament to the timelessness of the songs we hear on Human Remains. Even Sneap’s production, which has always been on the sleek and crisp side, tones things down in an effort to not detract from the impact of the material. “We’ve streamlined one or two little riffs, cut them down a little bit, and just changed a couple of the vocal melodies just to help with Dave a little bit, but it’s pretty much 90 percent true to what they were doing back in the day,” he says.

“It does sound fresh, especially in today’s metal climate. Basically we’ve just taken songs from 25 years ago, nothing’s influenced it. We deliberately tried not even think about modernizing it too much. We just wanted an honest recording of these songs that was valid today. We didn’t want it to sound retro either, we just wanted to give it a bit of a modern sound without being too overly polished.”

Human Remains is a nice little capper to what’s been a remarkable period for Sneap. In addition to bringing back Hell for everyone to hear, he’s played a major role in the comeback of German metal greats Accept, helping the band get back to its classic sound of the 1980s and remain true to it. “It’s almost like I’m re-living my childhood again, I’ve got all these bands coming back in my life that I was into back when I was 15, 16,” he says.

“There’s just something about it. I don’t know if it was the way the music scene was in the ’80s, but there was a vibe to it that I miss now. These old school guys, no one could touch them. Kids are actually getting better at playing, the bar’s been raised on the actual playing level, but I think the actual songwriting talent is getting watered down. When you listen to Accept, they have proper songs. They think about the melodies, about the arrangements, they don’t just jam it all together. It was great working with those guys…They’re world class. When you sit there and watch them play, it’s effortless to them.

With the current incarnation of Hell fully formed, it’s been a slow but steady process getting Bower, Speakman, and Bowler back into the swing of things over the course of three years, but the band is now fully prepared, and this summer’s European festival tour is in full swing. As for Sneap, he’s glad to finally be back onstage again, and to do so as a member of his all-time favorite band is perfect.

“I’ve never been more prepared to record an album than this one,” he enthuses. “I’ve been listening to the songs for 25 years on cassette, so I kind of knew the songs inside-out…I’ve been doing the same thing now for 15, 16 years, and as much as I love my job and the people I work with, and all the bands are great, we always have a good laugh, it’s time for a little bit of a change for me.”

“I’ve done the same thing day in and day out, and I’ve always wanted to be a guitar player, that’s why I formed a band with Sabbat originally, it was my dream,” he adds. “So for me to do this record for all the right reasons, to put Dave’s name out there, to help these guys out as well, then to get asked to play in the band, it’s a dream come true for me as well. It’s something different for me to do, I’ve actually got another chance at this, to go out there and play live with a group of guys I get along with.

“I’m actually in a band now where everyone’s pushing for the same thing, there’s no one out there for their own well-doing, everyone just wants the band to do well. It’s refreshing and very cool at the same time.”