Prior to the Manic Street Preachers rise to the British rock elite, there was a band that many believed would eventually become what the Manics are today. A few clippings and rave reviews in mags such as NME and Melody Maker ensued, including "as raw and bloody as 1992 gets". But, as is so often the case, the group was a commercial blip. Although they are still together and do gigs in and around their stomping grounds, the Hellfire Sermons will have to be content with a series of undervalued gems that were recorded from 1988 to 1993. And this compilation does the band a great service.
Taking a page from bands like the Smiths and the Cure, lead singer Colin Pennington has that snarl in his voice that James Dean Bradfield can still churn out, but there is a definite pop element to many of these songs. A palpable tension is felt but the band work just under its surface on the introductory "Freak Storm". One annoyance though is the group appears to shortshift the song, not giving it a proper sendoff. "Rachel Clean" gets to the point quickly through Alan Creevy's pounding of the skins. The Stone Roses would be another fair comparison, but whereas the Mancurians seemed to take that extra risk that either paid off or imploded Hellfire Sermons were content with being tight and very good, but not worthy of awe. "H.O.N.E.Y.M.O.O.N" comes off as a preamble for Morrissey's "You're the One for Me, Fatty" with a crunchier rhythm section.
In other parts of the album, you would swear Lou Reed has hijacked the vocals, especially on "Quicksand". The band winds its way around a melody rapidly before moving into another exciting and infectious pop blueprint. Fans of the early versions of the Beautiful South should get a kick out of "Penny Pinching Cathy", one of the golden nuggets among the 19. What the listener will find with roughly a quarter of these numbers is how they seem to be going nowhere fast, but like "Gentleman Caller", a slight alteration will have you cracking a smile and back alongside with them. The waltz-like pop rock of "The Best Laugh I Ever Had" is sinfully dreamy and gorgeous. "People say that I'm crazy", Pennington sings with Neal Carr offering some nifty and nimble guitar solos on the angst-sounding "Covered in Love".
As the album progresses, the band becomes a bit edgier and rough around the edges on tracks such as "Sacred Skin" despite the "la la la la la" sporadically added. This harder sound has its drawbacks though on the polished and too slick "Callaghan". The lyrics are better but the arrangement sees them trying too hard. "Sarasine" carries this further, sounding ominous and moving into territory that the Manics would revel in during The Holy Bible. The music is more pronounced here and there are some effects like background voices that seem at odds with what the band had been musically rooted in. As for "No Hands", please see Elastica.
Taken from three albums and nine different studio sessions, this collection does the group a great amount of deserved justice. But if the order of the selection could have been mixed up a tad more, the flow of the record would be even better than it is. A tune like "Bill & Sarah" or "Real Life Seams" works just as well closer to the start rather than one of four songs in a row taken from the same session. Regardless though, the album is a testament to the idea that the cream doesn't always rise to the public's top. Perhaps the talented and under-valued Hellfire Sermons were the original Rialto, falling incredibly through the cracks.