Welcome to the first installment of a special series of Changeover Music, where I’ll be writing about my favorite songs of 2012. Of course, I’d love to play some of these tunes at tennis tournaments, but sadly all the arena DJ jobs are taken by people with little to no taste. Yes, Paris DJ, I’m looking at you. When would you play this song during a tennis match? Who would be the players? Feel free to leave your answers in the comments section below.
The Helio Sequence, apart from being a very cool name for a band, is a duo from Portland, Oregon. They’re not exactly new on the scene: as their Facebook page says, they’ve been playing together since 1996. The band consists of guitarist/lead singer Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel. However, I only became aware of their work through Grooveshark Radio, when it played a track from their debut LP, Com Plex, one day when I was probably working on an Excel spreadsheet in my old job. I remember liking their sound, liking that album, and then forgetting about them.
Fast-forward to about a month and a half ago, when I was discovering Spotify, and noticed that they had an app for Pitchfork. In the app, Pitchfork had the newest albums that had come out, and you were one click away from turning any review into a playlist for the album. As someone who loves to listen to whole albums (I know, there might be 20 of us left in the world), this Pitchfork app killed two birds with one stone: it kept me updated on the music that was coming out, while at the same time making it very easy for me to listen to anything I was intrigued by. Anyway, during my initial exploring of the app, I was scrolling away and saw that The Helio Sequence had a new album out. Why not give it a try?
Negotiations is the fifth full-length album from the Portland duo, and it does sound quite different from their 12 year-old debut, Com Plex. As I write this, I’m listening to said 12 year-old album, and it’s striking how many more keyboard layers they put on every single song. Summers’ voice sounds entirely different. Weikel’s drumming is still full of energy, precision and grooviness (not the most common combination to find), but it gets somewhat buried beneath all the keyboard and guitar work. If anything, Negotiations sounds like the older album, one where Summers’ guitar sound is more subtle and organic, the keyboard work is merely atmospheric, and Summers’ voice comes through with a much warmer tone. This all makes sense when I read this, on the website of their label, Sub-Pop. In short, the band’s studio in Portland got flooded by heavy rains during their last tour in 2009, so after moving to a bigger space, the pair decided to go for a more vintage-y approach and ditch a lot of the digital equipment they had used up until this point, in favor of analog gear. As I listen to my favorite track from Com Plex, a multi-layered atmospheric jam called “My Heart”, and then move to the opening track on Negotiations,”One More Time”, I can see the contrast clearly. It’s like a before-and-after picture that they love to show on those weight-loss programs on TV: the endless layers of crisp keyboard and guitar effects that created a sort of impenetrable forest in “My Heart” are replaced with…barely anything on “One More Time”. Weikel’s drumming makes me feel he’s sitting right next to me, and Summers’ voice is featured more centrally and carries the song in a most powerful way. The bass line is strong and clear. Even at the end, when the band can’t resist and the few elements they had going in the song come together in a subtle wave of a climax, the song ends abruptly with a clear chime. Years ago, Summers and Weikel were trying to lose you in the dense forest of sound they created – now they want you to stand back and enjoy every one of the few trees around you.
Probably because in the first verse you hear the words “slow motion train wreck”. And maybe because the chorus of the song consists of these two lines:
“Hard these downward spirals.
Oh, such a never-ending downward spiral”.
OK, not so difficult to see why this feels like a sad song, but thanks to Weikel’s fantastic drum work ends up being the most fun/sad song of the year.
Back to that opening verse. It’s such a great call to have Weikel’s drumming and Summer’s voice guide the way, with the keyboard arpeggios remaining as a tasteful backdrop, along with some extremely delicate guitar picking by Summers. Inevitably, though, Weikel starts going for the cymbals, and we’re into the chorus, where the band goes all out on volume and sound. That’s the basic structure of the song: a teasing, subtle and playful verse followed by a rocking chorus where subtlety is thrown out the window. What makes it great, though, is how the band comes back to that bare-bones grooviness of the first verse right after the chorus, and they do it so seamlessly that they make you wonder if the craziness of the chorus ever happened. After the second verse is followed by the second run round the chorus, Summers and Weikel delve into one of their classic jams, thrashing everything in sight, only to land on my favorite part of the whole song.
The third verse achieves a sort of musical perfection that got me from the first time I listened to this album. After some fantastic drum work by Weikel in the rock-out post-chorus bridge, we’re back to the playful grooviness of the previous two verses, but this time, the setting is further simplified: the keyboard arpeggios are almost completely gone, and Summers kills it with a most beautiful, simple line:
“And you always second guess”
Which he repeats afterwards, accompanied only by Weitzel’s drumming and his very slight guitar picking. This part never fails to kill me. It’s just so perfect. You get the full-on warmth of Summer’s voice, and a line that could mean so many things to anybody: “You always second guess”. It’s just such a great decision to let those words stand front and center at that moment of the song, without much of anything to distract you from them. And after they’re gone, the band drives into a sort of coda/chorus ending that inevitably leaves you wanting for more. Or at least for a chance to sing along to that killer line at the start of the third verse.
That’s the sign of of a special song, one that stays with us for months and months, and to which we come back regularly.
In a way, The Helio Sequence sounds like a bare-bones four piece band on Negotiations, while they sounded like a six-piece ensemble 12 years ago on Com Plex. This translates very well to their live performances these days.
The way the band works live is rather straightforward: Weikel has all the keyboard parts pre-recorded, so he can focus on the drumming, while Summers handles vocals and lead guitar comfortably. It’s a pleasure to watch Weikel play the drums. The joy he gets out of his instrument is extremely infections. Here, see for yourself: