The Helio Sequence
Love and Distance
s the harmonica drowns out the electronic tinkerings of the aptly-titled “Harmonica Song,” your mind begins to swoon. Your unease dissolves into the queasy realization that a band you appreciated has soured in the intervening years between albums. And then the guitars start, gleaming with faux apocalypse and cleaned-up gaffes. You’re crisp-collared and new again, and this is your first rock song. It’s the feeling of waking up to find yourself bound and gagged by a fraternity you can’t remember having pledged. Fratronic rock. Let’s coin the phrase here and now. Goat’s blood. Sticky shoes. A pledge-master who’ll only answer to King Tut. By God, you’ve devolved through the daydream state.
As I mentioned, it wasn’t always so uninspiring. Over the course of a duty-bound touring schedule and two increasingly compelling albums, Brandon Summers (singer/guitars) and Benjamin Weikel (keyboards/drums), the duo that forms the Helio Sequence, had worked hard to perch themselves at the summit of an indie-major breakthrough. Their last album, Young Effectuals, was a thick mix of keyboard effects, stolid rock drumming, and hazy irreconcilable vocals. Heard from a distance, and preferably through a bristling batch of caged wire, their lyrics were completely indecipherable, hovering above their songs with barely an offer of sense. They were a music-first band, content to watch the listener float off on their soundscapes and intricate pocket symphonies. You hadn’t the faintest idea what they were saying anyway, and their vague misgivings about jobs and twentysomething vacancies sounded just intangible enough to offer wisdom (yes, the Radiohead songwriting technique—patent pending). Here, on their Sub Pop debut, Love and Distance, an unpleasant change is clear in the first instant; Summers’ voice is pushed to the front of the mix, and the over-the-top choruses and limpid lyricism that comes through is enough to make you blush.
Following the sterile harmonica work of the opener, the electronic tones of “Repeater” begin to galvanize for a moment, but the vocals break any composure the song’s striving for. Through this bareness, lines like “Out of control / And there’s no one to grab me” emerge clean and unharmed, and it’s a nakedness their lyrical depth shouldn’t allow. On “S.O.S.” the chorus is so desperate and unhinged it should replace its namesake across the country; a frightened alarum to all that there’s trouble abound and it’s far closer than you think. The multiple meanings, masked by the haze of their past, are exposed. Cover your ears.
Still, as surprising as it may sound if you’ve made it this far, at moments the Helio Sequence reel in their lusty reaching and return their emphasis to where it used to lie: their heady keyboard work. When they’re not attempting to play Harmonica Slim over their electronic bedrock, they can still swallow you up with blackhole escapism. “Everyone Knows Everyone” is as blissful as the Flaming Lips without the corny acid fallout, twinkling on airy tones and twirling acoustic guitars for several stupefying minutes. The depth of their production is sea-deep here, and beneath the song’s shifting tides and stirring waters are hidden sinkings half worn-away.
The album closer, “Looks Good (But You Looked Away)” brings with it a promise that, by now, Love and Distance can’t possibly keep. Soothingly transitory, the track’s Beatlesesque “Doo Doos” are embedded in a piano that’s bounced around the hollow of an aluminum conch. A simple guitar part joins a subtle bass drum as the band drifts past waxwork cowboy statuettes and dark minstrel forests, a discreet entwining of the sedate and the engrossed.
Sadly, the distance is numbing, and the love all but absent. Love and Distance ends on the note of promise that Young Effectuals staked as Ground Zero. To awake from this keg-stand dream and unwind the alphas from the omegas, there’s a taste of something foul, a memory better left alone. Trust in the subconscious, and if it should jar loose, better in the closeted space of sleep than the open nausea of daylight…