Indie Street Goes Deep #5
The Helio Sequence - Negotiations (Sub Pop)
The Helio Sequence’s website is certainly minimal. I visited, hoping to meet the band where they live, so to speak, to learn more about the two musicians (Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel) behind the shimmering surface of their new record, “Negotiations.” To learn more about this new recording space they created after losing their last one. There isn’t much on their home page, just a couple of icons, one being a YouTube video. With that, we only get 1 minute and 49 seconds of Summers and Weikel working. Watching it I couldn’t help thinking of the documentary “Into Great Silence,” the 2005 film about the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps who famously don’t speak to the outside world. These are scenes of cool Portland-based monk musicians (judging by their very short video studio tour), working away. A short video about their very long process making each record, not releasing anything until they’re good and ready, even if it takes years. And it does take years. The Helio Sequence have what amounts to a four-year process for each full-length record (“Love and Distance,” 2004; “Keep Your Eyes Ahead,” 2008; and now, “Negotiations”). This must mean they spend a lot of time developing the rich and distinctive sounds they find in abundance in their solitude, in their intense late-night recording and playback sessions, teasing them from the technology. All this, of course, appeals to my introverted nature, and there’s nothing that says musicians must be extroverts. It’s a cool video, but it doesn’t tell me much about the band’s personal philosophy. I have to make huge leaps of imagination, which I frequently do anyway.
This is night music. Introspective music. The smooth synth treatment makes these 11 songs almost feel like lullabies. The music has almost a hush to it, floating toward an hypnotic horizon. The lyrics aren’t comforting, though. I almost wish I could listen to a live version of this entire record to get a sense of the monk musicians behind this concealing scrim of sound they’ve created. That’s the allure of the ascetic, the closed society: There’s a world they inhabit that we don’t, and getting admission to their space is rare. Even inside, it’s almost impossible to comprehend everything they do. Songs like “Harvester of Souls” and “December,” my favorite song on this record, feel intimate, close, confessional. The warm echo just hanging in the air around Summers’ vocals increase the silence and the introspection of his words. The nature of introspection is self-reflection, which these songs have, asking questions we can’t answer. This whole record feels like music walking away from something, not toward something. Decisions have been made. There’s no struggle to resolve the ideas in the lyrics, no rising conflict. What happened has already happened. Listening to this record is like walking back in slow motion through all the fragments and drawing conclusions from the pieces underfoot. The nights are hollow and foggy. Visibility is limited. But the mystery is gone. In this way The Helio Sequence is anything but a band of monks living apart from the rest of us looking at ancient mysteries. This is a band very much of this world. A band that works through the all-too-present questions and losses of our all-too-modern life. They just do it in a way that feels set apart. But this isn’t the first time. This new record seamlessly connects to their two records that came before.
It must also be said that Benjamin Weikel is an amazing drummer. Of all the instruments that flash and hover on this record, Weikel’s drum is full of fire. We’ve seen several two-piece and three-piece bands emerge in the past five years with sharp drummers who set the pace. I’m actually surprised we don’t see more writing about Weikel’s skills in this area. The opening track, “One More Time,” crashes into the room and into the bloodstream. The drumming is what keeps this record grounded, preventing it from slipping away into dreamy synth oblivion. The drumming connects us to the sensibility of the city, a restless movement, the rhythm of modern life and machines. You read about this band’s connection to nature, which they showcase in their website video (two modern-day Thoreaus walking into the hills above Portland to reflect on place and pace in grassy meadows and beside clear-running streams), but Summers and Weikel are city dwellers. The heartbeat in this record that keeps it swirling back to earth is in Weikel’s drumming.
This is a finely crafted record by two thoughtful, connected master musicians in control of their world, even though most of that world is a private place. It’s their records, the artifacts, that we must use to understand The Helio Sequence, as best we can. There’s not much to go on. It’s the band’s mystery that keeps us coming back, always with more annoying questions, to find very few answers. A new record. Less than 2 minutes of video. Shadows. What can anyone make of that? All we can do is return to the music, and we do, again and again.
- John Ellison (Indie Street Contributor)