Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #130. Subscribe to our print edition here!
From Sydney’s underground to the international spotlight: the dramacore deviants in Hellions are making catastrophically huge waves in the rock scene, and with Rue, those are only getting bigger. Matt Doria dives deep. Photo by Alex Jay.
Hardcore and opera don’t gel in much (or any) of a traditional sense, but Hellions live up to their namesake in that they don’t really care about your rules. Their 2016 opus, Opera Oblivia, beautifully married the pit-starting gruffness of their punk roots with the histrionic gravity of a baroque masterpiece.
It was an ambitious feat, but one that paid off in spades with unanimous critical acclaim and a string of sold-out tours across the globe. So it only makes sense that its follow-up would not only continue on that path of dramatic grandeur, but kick it into absolute overdrive.
“We’d always been building towards what we achieved with Opera Oblivia,” declares guitarist, bassist and – starting with LP4 – co-lead vocalist Matt Gravolin. “We sort of found our identity there, and I think the defining factor of our identity is that theatrical element. So this time, we just wanted to really capitalise on that, and the melodic side of our sound, and really sort of up the ante.”
Rue – named for its overarching theme: the duality of man’s inevitable moral conflicts – began life as a sprawling, 17-to-20-track mecca dotted with ballads, interludes and the occasional “Bohemian Rhapsody”-esque epic. Multi-part cuts like “Blueberry Odyssey” and “Theatre Of The Lotus” channel that opulence (their snarky, vaudevillian undertones would feel right at home in a Tim Burton flick), but in shaving down the album to just a breath over 30 minutes, they’re undercut with jams like “X” and “Get Up!” – huge, booming anthems designed for the dancefloor.
“We wanted it to still be quite arty, for lack of a better word, but we also wanted it to be, like, a ‘bangers’ record,” Gravolin says of the album’s structure. “We didn’t want to meander around too much or have the record be too lengthy. It needed to be a big punch from start to finish.”
Of course, crafting such a monumental release didn’t come without a few hiccups – namely, the fact that Hellions spent three times as long as they normally do in the studio.
“Opera Oblivia was recorded in one month, but it took us three to record Rue,” Gravolin explains. “The pressure might have gotten to us a little bit, and we might have done a bit of overthinking, but that’s okay because it brought us to where we got in the end and the record that we love so much. We initially planned to spend two months in the studio, just so we’d have ample time to experiment with some things, and it was supposed to be really easygoing.
“But when we ended up with between 17 and 20 songs, we ran into some stylistic issues. We tried a lot of different styles of music, and I guess we weren’t really done with the experimentation by the end of it, so we had to come back for that third month. It was a struggle, having to be honest with ourselves and say, ‘Is any of this new stuff any good? Does it have a place on this record?’ Having that honesty about us was probably the biggest challenge, I think.”
The experimentation that Hellions employed on Rue didn’t just pay off – it’s paving the way for the Sydney foursome to become one of Australia’s hottest alternative acts. Especially jaw-dropping is the interplay between Hellions’ broad stroke of guitar techniques; seldom elsewhere does pristine noodling blend so magically with chainsaw distortion and pit-splitting attack.
Gravolin cites an ESP Eclipse with 73-gauge bottom strings as the nucleus for the latter, with credit for those crystal‑clear rhythm tones due to a rather unanticipated source: a Jackson Pro Series Signature Mark Morton Dominion (say that five times in a row).
“We have a very good friend over at Fender,” Gravolin says of how he fell into the piece. “He’s always looked after us with amps and guitars, and he recently offered me a Jackson endorsement. I just freaked out. I was very humbled to have been asked.”
And though Hellions are far from your average bubblegum radio-rock band, it seems a bit out of place that Gravolin would gravitate towards the metal-centric guitar made so famous by the Lamb Of God axelord. But as Gravolin explains, the piece was just too special not to snatch up.
“I’ve never been much of a fan of heavy metal looking guitars,” he admits. “But [our friend] had given me this magazine to flick through and I saw the thing that I’m playing now, and I just fell in love with it. It’s such a gorgeous guitar! So I loved the look of it, and then I sat down – y’know, obviously I needed to hear it – and played it for a while, and it was just wonderful, man. Love at first sight, love at first play.”