There was a point, late in the 1980s, when the realms of punk, post-punk, gothic rock and heavy metal began to blur. The Cult traded Southern Death for something that sounded more like AC/DC, complete with unironic use of phrases like “smokestack lightning” and “uh, you know what I mean!” The Damned briefly traded snotty camp and overdrive pedals for chorus and leather. T.S.O.L., after the departure of Jack Grisham, lost their taste for horror punk while developing an appetite for destruction. And even a band like The Sisters of Mercy, who never actually went glam metal, still had the look of a band that could have torn the roof off of a Sunset Strip club in 1988.
It’s this late-’80s era of goth and metal that the music of Portland’s Idle Hands most closely resembles. While it’s been fashionable of late to swirl the two together in an innovative and contemporary way, the band’s debut album Mana embraces a level of campy pomp and grandeur that few metal bands of late have dared to touch. As such, the degree to which one finds enjoyment in the album likely has an inverse correlation to whether or not that person would have sold back any of the previously mentioned bands’ middle-period output at The Wherehouse. But Idle Hands offers us the gift of hindsight on this album, proving that whether or not trends at the time or immediately afterward were working in those bands’ favor, a good idea is a good idea. And Mana is a consistently fun and dynamic restatement of goth-glam intent.
Idle Hands’ ratio of goth to metal is roughly about even, their shimmering Batcave emissions less grim than Tribulation but significantly more spandex-and-leather than Vaura. They set their riffs ablaze and unleash a satisfyingly guttural “UGH!” when the occasion calls for it, but never at the expense of a great dark pop song, of which there are many. The fiery chug of “Give Me To the Night” is one standout that’s as much Judas Priest as Joy Division, while “Blade and the Will” is a spectacular showcase for twin-lead guitar harmonies. The handclaps that open “A Single Solemn Rose” showcase an unapologetic pop sensibility that most metal bands would likely turn away from. And “Double Negative” finds an appealing balance between aggression and theatricality.
To make this perfectly clear, Idle Hands lay it on pretty thick. References to “The night” are abundant, and vocalist Gabriel Franco has a tortured bellow that sells lines as melodramatic as “Get used to life without me!” But seen another way, this is a form of metal that’s heavy on unguarded emotion and sung rather than screamed—Franco doesn’t hide his personal demons behind unintelligible growls. And for how stylized Idle Hands’ sound is, ultimately this is a work of emotion more than aesthetics. If only by a few degrees. After all, they have that aesthetic absolutely nailed.