The Hellset Orchestra

During the interval we went outside for a quick beer and cigarettes. Sheltering from the purple, angry skies in an arched passageway, the four of us turned round to face the magnificent, foreboding turrets, just as lightening skidded violently across the night. “Is that a cat, up on the roof?” quizzed Ben nervously. We scurried for the safety of Thoresby Hall. Inside, I picked up a flyer for the night’s performance. On the front, hiding in the shadows was the creepy, come-hither figure of Flay; red-rimmed eyes barely concealing his malevolent potential. Below his vice-like fingers, the words read: “Enter the gothic world of Gormenghast and journey into the darkest chasms of your imagination.”

David Glass’ wonderful stage recreation of the first part of Mervyn Peake’s celebrated trilogy is packed with vivid characters, concealed intent and rampant, theatrical ambition. Later that night, sliding for the first time under the waves of Greetings From The Great Humongous – the debut mini-LP from The Hellset Orchestra – the transition from play to music felt seamless. On the opening “Come Into My Lab” He Said, organ, bass, drums, violins, cello and sax whip and whirl around dramatic vocals. Perhaps the eeriest character in Gormenghast is the castle, groaning and plotting around its dwellers of malcontent. The Hellset Orchestra possess a similar enigmatic entity. Studying the band’s individual components will not open the doors of simple classification.

Reviewers have tried to cage the seven-piece in disparate musical categories, ranging from Victorian, music hall demons to ska. The Plug editor has access to approximately 50,000 records that could be classified as ska. He confirms that ska is not really applicable when it comes to describing The Hellset Orchestra. But Victorian? A possibility, especially considering the band’s welcome on their website: “The Hellset Orchestra came together some time ago through coincidental research into rare Victorian bird-hunting periodicals.” Or perhaps The Hellset Orchestra have a sense of humour. “I don’t know where the Victoriana thing came from,” says Michael, the band’s singer and organist. “It’s something that’s tagged along, become a standard thing in every review but I don’t know where it came from. Amy and Nad may have worn big black dresses at a gig.”

Watching The Hellset Orchestra live can be a bewildering experience. A cauldron of sounds and styles ebb and stab through shifting time signatures. Talking about the band, Michael has previously commented: “This jabberwocky emits sounds of a theatrically monstrous nature and utilises sounds from the metal, baroque, jazz, progressive rock and power ballad periods of history.” If this is true – and it’s as close as I can get – then on stage it is an extremely animated jabberwocky. “We do think about it (the visual aspects). I think that’s part of the point of performing; you know people are watching what you’re doing. I try to put on a performance and entertain people. It’s better than sitting there like stone statues, playing the songs as they sound on a CD.

“I’ve always been into queen and pompous rock,” continues Michael. “We have similar ideas to this, just with different instrumentation and aesthetic. The Hellset Orchestra has riffs!” I nervously try to qualify pompous rock, envisaging the leather-stretched smiles of Def Leppard. “Like King Crimson and Sparks,” he states. “I think that prog can be pompous. Even ELO can be pompous!” Song titles such as I’m Trying To Make A Monstrous Bird and Orpheus’ Incredulous Eyepop add definition to The Hellset Orchestra’s grandiose plumage. “That’s what I like, stories that are over the top,” Michael says. “This is going to sound like Spinal Tap, but I love stories with ancient gods etc, it’s more interesting than singing about girls in clubs. It seems right, it would be contrived if we did it another way.”

Prior to The Hellset Orchestra, Michael played guitar in a stoner-rock band. But the piano, his instrument of choice as a child, was never far from his thoughts. “I was still always playing it,” he remembers. “But at the time I was more into big, dirty riffs. So the plan was to get a piano, bass and drums together, to keep my fingers working on a piano. And then we knew other people with instruments and The Hellset Orchestra grew from there. We couldn’t have planned it to work out how it has.”

It’s working out very well. Boasting a healthy following in Nottingham, the band is also attracting attention in London, Oxford and Sheffield. Last year they were chosen, along with The Petebox, to represent Nottingham at Germany’s Das Fest. “We do reminisce every so often. It was a taste of the high life.” remembers Michael. The Hellset Orchestra are currently mixing eight songs recorded in January and will then start to record another batch of ten. “We won’t release the new songs ourselves,” states Michael. “There are a couple of people who have shown some interest, so we’ll give it to them when we’ve finished and see what happens. There’s no point getting excited yet and it’s not why we’re doing it anyway. It’s better if more people get to hear our stuff but we’re not going to change our approach.”

With appearances at summer festivals planned, it’s certain that more people will get the chance to hear The Hellset Orchestra. And on June 11th the band will be playing A Drop In The Ocean Festival. “What was so good about last year’s festival was that it was organised in a month. The fact that everything came together so quickly is amazing. Seeing so many people doing the same thing and it making them happy. You can’t contrive these things; everyone is there for the same cause. It’s not bullshitty; it’s nice to help. The money raised was a good thing. And it’s nice for Nottingham, to be seen in a positive light. A Drop In The Ocean can only be a good thing for the city.”

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