Posted by: Bill Jones | May 30, 2008

The Helio Sequence Had to Lose Their Voice to Find It

There are numerous Indie rock reviews that could be summed up with the words “music’s great, singer’s bad.” The Helio Sequence— up until now considered a good-not-great duo on Sub Pop and Cavity Search— buck this trend like a colt with a elastic strap snuggly pulled around their abdomen. Eargoggles’ pick as the Band of Horses of the Summer of 2008. Brandon Summers, the band’s frontman, is a compelling, economical, and technically sound vocalist who can, and does, carry the band’s fourth album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, to an almost repetitive play must on most audiophiles players of choice.

You have to go back to go forward on this story however.

(more after the jump + music files + whiskey??)

So, following two epic, self-produced albums on Portland’s Cavity Search Records, The Helio Sequence had just released the slinky Love and Distance in 2004; their debut on Sub Pop. Brandon and best friend Benjamin “Benji” Weikel were traversing the country with their obsesessive collection of synthesizers, pedals, guitars and big ‘ol amps all jam-packed into a secondhand tour van (a two-seater obtained during Benjamin’s stint as the drummer for famed Modest Mouse). After a very taxing six months of tours in the U.S. and Europe with Kings of Leon, Blonde Redhead, Modest Mouse and Secret Machines, Brandon’s vocal chords became severely shredded. When he lost his voice for the first batch of these dates, he thought it was a fluke thing and decided to made the best of it [enter the whiskey]. Halfway through the tour, though, he could hardly speak—let alone sing—and literally had to stop talking during daylight hours–much like a vampire??. To kill the boredom of the forced silence during the day and the frustration of crappy show performences at night, he took in 60 books in about as many days. One of the first books he read was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Upon returning to Portland, Brandon’s doctor forbade him from singing for almost two months. The doc’s directive led Summers to a feast of indie rock anomalies: healthy living via exercise! and a regular practice/recording schedule and dare we say! improvement via singing exercises. “I really hit the wall,” he recalls, “Going into 2005 I actually had to think, ‘If I lose my voice, what will I do?’” The results lie in ascendant vocals that replace awkward growls and breathy whispers with precise notes and even phrasing.

Brandon taught himself vocal exercises and mic technique, after trading his Maker’s Mark in for Ricola, and took up jogging and vowed not to be another lazy musician; from that point on, recording and practice sessions were to begin at 9am sharp (Kinda like Luke Wilson’s character in Bottlerocket). So, it isn’t that surprising that Keep Your Eyes Ahead is The Helio Sequence’s most dynamic, extraordinary work to date. Keep Your Eyes Ahead marries the duo’s signature layered keyboards and Large-room guitars with crisp songwriting and a newfound appreciation for minimalism. The finger picking on Shed Your Love is backed by exquisite classical-like strings and ambient noise, but Brandon’s serene, self-assured delivery remains front and center. While songs from the band’s early releases were up near 7 minutes, even the longest, jammiest, catchiest track on Keep Your Eyes Ahead (the barn-stomping Hallelujah) clocks in at 4 and a half minutes, evidence of just how refined their craft has become. Or are they trying to be more radio friendly? Beyond the new health regimen, Brandon’s forced silence helped him deconstruct and refocus his approach towards musical expression. Lyrics increasingly became a stream of consciousness. The vocals were recorded spontaneously in bedroom closets and family living rooms, which may explain the haunting urgency you hear in Brandon’s voice, like his parents were coming home soon and they hadn’t cleaned up, especially on driving tracks like Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The band also took it’s time on the album. After the bulk of official recording was completed, a listen through of all the demos and snippets on Brandon’s hard drive convinced Benjamin there were more gems in the rough. Most of which became the aforementioned Hallelujah and Keep Your Eyes Ahead, as well as the mid-tempo Back to This. True Neo-Indie indeed, with their macs a blazing; they obsessively obsessed over the album until the album was an album and not just a bunch of songs.

With Summers’ new found vocal expertise came his “need” to “carry” songs. Some would say that Keep Your Eyes Ahead falters when Summers and Weikel set aside their “elctro” wiring and aim for a folky sound sprinkled with some ambient backgrounds. What?? well we here at eargoggles like it. It lends to the “play-straight-through” classification of the album; not having to skip or mix in a playlist with other types/genres. There are lines like “Drank the dark wine of the New York night/ With shattered mind across the borderline” that pull at some heartstrings and make the listener feel far away from someone. On Keep Your Eyes Ahead”s final track, the harmonica-laden No Regrets, the clacking percussion behind a drunken sing-a-long rivals some of the Neo-Indie-Americana bands. Keep Your Eyes Ahead has a refreshing maturity and certain kind of poise; like a cancer survivor. And that is just what Summers is, a singer who lost his voice and fought to come back better than ever. He gets it right during Hallelujah— “We don’t want answers, anyway”–they have learned to do what they do and they do not have to answer to anybody because they know what they had to go through to get here.

——

There is a lot of emotion here, but not the “emo” type that uses sappy words to convey. Summers’ lyrics speak of a man who has finally found himself or even found his purpose. He has “broken-up” with his former self and started “going out” with this new more focused musician and they click. It’s like he went on vacation to Europe and grew a beard, came back and was sour with the friends he was with. The choppy ta-ta-trucks and trains! verses of Can’t Say No and the tremble-y guitars of Lately encompass the flat skies and multitudinous bridges of hometown Portland and could easily be in a teen movie just after the main characters have ended their relationship; The Captive Mind ventures near Modest Mouse’s “Gravity Rides Everything“. The pulsing sequencer of Hallelujah, the album’s longest and most strident anthem, plays counterpoint to Summer’s long, loose solos. The muscular title track wrestles lustily with the Stone Roses: “You came on like you knew you would/ Wearing high-top shoes walking home from school/ And I just ’bout fell right off the balcony.” Here’s a video of Keep Your Eyes Ahead:

One listen to Keep Your Eyes Ahead, which was self-produced by the duo and then mastered by Greg Calbi (Iron and Wine, Interpol, and Paul Simon’s Graceland), confirms The Helio Sequence teem with an energy and a range that continues to defy such narrow categorization.

News::::

Village Voice has announced the lineup for the eighth annual Siren Music Festival. The free event fills up a whole day at Coney Island on July 19. As of yet, performers include Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Broken Social Scene, Beach House, Times New Viking, the Dodos, Parts & Labor, Annuals, the Helio Sequence, Dragons of Zynth, These Are Powers, Film School, and Jaguar Love. Pretty sweet if your over on the East Coast.

You Can Come to Me file

Hallelujah file

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Responses

  1. It’s great to see that this album is still getting the attention is deserves. Helio Sequence definitely took a turn with this album but it is as solid if not more so than their freshman release.


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