The Helio Sequence – Negotiations
Sub Pop 2012
The Helio Sequence would no doubt say creativity makes for a fine crucible; few bands have had such bad (yet strangely fortuitous) luck in the course of their career since they debuted with 2000’s dreamy, ambient Com Plex. Yet it’s just that difficult road that led to the Portland two piece’s artistic high water mark, 2008’s lovely, deceptively anguished Keep Your Eyes Ahead. It was recorded mere months after vocalist Brandon Summers tore up his vocal cords and had to re-learn how to sing, leading the band onto the more organic folk route Negotiations now broadens into a wide open expanse. Negotiations comes with a bit of an expected delay: the duo’s practice area/studio was lost to a flood while they were on tour, forcing the band to relocate to a vacant industrial warehouse to record. The unfamiliar surroundings pop up in the minor chord anxiety and haunting atmospherics that permeate every corner of Negotiations, a record that drowns in its own reverb as often as it coasts along top of it, bubbling here and there with Benjamin Weikel’s pounding drumset.
Keep Your Eyes Ahead found solace in the black-and-blue rasp of Summers’ sympathetic voice and those wonderfully ambivalent guitar lines, meandering among layers of fuzz and effects but wounding so tightly through each song’s melodies. Negotiations spreads itself out a bit more, a likely result of the band’s reported decision to write each song as a sketch and then build around it. First single “October” wraps itself up around a hypnotically repetitive chorus and a crashing drum pattern, Summers’ rumpled voice warning “so you go where you wanna be / they say it will set you free / you know it’s never so.” “The Downward Spiral” takes things in the opposite direction, spinning along a descending scale and a disquieting pallor hanging over everything, making a song that sounds so open feel so claustrophobic. Space is a major component to everything here; for just two guys, the Helio Sequence make a serious amount of navel-gazing noise, simultaneously spilling over the speakers while sounding hushed, fragile. A lot of this has to do with Summers’ plaintive, wistful emoting contrasting so nicely with Weikel’s titanic drumming, which makes every tom sound like a thudding heartbeat, every crash a crystalline warning (see: the wonderful tension in album centerpiece “Open Letter”). Liberal synths and swells of bass fill up the edges nicely, turning every song here into something to get lost in, a mid-tempo paean to studio layering.
That is, unfortunately, the album’s curse as well as it’s gift. Those few tracks where Summers and Weikel take a step out of their comfort zone are just where you realize how numbing everything else becomes over the course of eleven songs. The mostly improvised “Harvester of Souls” is a heartbreaking folk exercise, the rumor of an acoustic finding its way through a morose fog of effects hanging loosely over Summers’ ghostly, broken vocals. It’s a wonderful callback to the more solemn parts of Keep Your Eyes Ahead, and while Negotiations does a wonderful job maintaining that record’s overarching feel, it too often gets lost in its own rote role, the waves and mounds of reverb blurring melodies together into one big cloud bank. When a spot of sunlight does filters through, as on the triumphant “When The Shadows Fall” or the quickened pace of “Hall of Mirrors,” it’s a revelation, seemingly the work of an entirely different band. The synth work on “Silence on Silence” is nice, the gradually soaring climax in “The Measure” is appropriately bombastic, but as a whole Negotiations does little to distinguish the individual songs from the album’s greater artistic statement. This, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to see the Helio Sequence be a little less ethereal and a little more intimate the next time around. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another biblical calamity to get there.