My first experience with The Helio Sequence, a duo out of Portland, was at SP20, Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary concert in Marymoor Park. It’s rare for a band I’m hearing for the first time live to impress me, but these guys did. Their calm, cool, and catchy melodies hit the spot in the middle of a hot day filled with acts like No Age and Pissed Jeans. In fact, in my review of that concert over at an old place, I said that The Helio Sequence was my New Favorite Band…until Pissed Jeans hit the stage.
That concert was seven years ago (mental note, plan trip to Seattle in three years for SP30), when the band was on their fifth album. Earlier this year they released this self-titled disc, their seventh. Why did it take me so long to listen to any more of my New Favorite Band’s material? Especially one so electronically oriented, who would seem to be suited to a studio recording? The only explanation is that I’m an awful person. But here’s my attempt at redemption.
Better late than never. The Helio Sequence sounds so comfortably familiar, which is exactly how I remember them sounding. These two guys produce rich, lush soundscapes in which they couch imaginative instrumentation and beautiful and haunting melodies. It’s amazing these two guys sound this rich. You can always tell those one-person bedroom iPad bands, but maybe the magic number is two guys. Or maybe the magic ingredient is to have a real drummer. More likely the real magic is just these two guys.
Beyond sounding like a “real” band despite relying so heavily on electronics, another way these guys stand out from the current crop of musical duds by doing the same thing only better is that a lot of their stuff is really reminiscent of 80’s music, except it rules. I hear a lot of, say, No Jacket Required-era Phil Collins, with their dark, minor melodies and songs of smoldering, not lust or love, but longing, and from afar at that. On a more modern bent, this is kind of like what James Blake is doing if you stripped out the vocal experimentation and made it more upbeat. I mean, it’s just got that James Blake sound in the instrumentation.
Song-wise, there’s nothing bad here, or even mediocre really. If I were forced to lose one of the tracks, I’d probably settle on “Deuces” pretty quickly, but I still like it and I’d feel bad about it. On the other end of the spectrum, “Upward Mobility” gets a Mix rating because it is probably the album’s best track and gets me moving a bit more than the other tracks, but “Phantom Shore” is right behind it, and, really, you could probably pick any of the Really Likes for a mix…I just felt like I had to pick one because it would kind of be a crime to make a 2015 mix and not have this album represented.
So most of the songs kind of reside in the same zone quality wise. And tempo wise. And sound wise. And key wise. Which I usually have a problem with. But here I don’t…it’s a different take on “the album” than the one I grew up with. It’s closer to the dance/club/house aesthetic where you pick a vibe and stick with it. This is like a great soundtrack to what you’re doing throughout the day, a nice scoring of your life. But with clever lyrics and great melodies, the songs stand on their own and reward appreciation on that level, too. It’s just a really nice collection of songs that all work together, if maybe a little more closely related that what I’m usually into.
So, to all you crappy millennial musicians tearing it up on All Songs Considered, listen closely to The Helio Sequence. This is the way to do it. This is the way to write modern music with catchy melodies while integrating the last half of rock and roll’s history. Now get in line behind these guys.
Mix: “Upward Mobility”
Really Like: “Stoic Resemblance,” “Leave Or Be Yours,” “Seven Hours,” “Phantom Shore”
Like: “Battle Lines,” “Red Shifting,” “Deuces,” “Inconsequential Ties,” “Never Going Back”
Song Notes: After the jump
- Battle Lines –
- Stoic Resemblance –
- Red Shifting –
- Upward Mobility –
- Leave Or Be Yours –
- Deuces –
- Inconsequential Ties – cool hippie shit. Almost like Jimmy Buffett kinda stuff.
- Seven Hours – Phil Collins
- Phantom Shore –
- Never Going Back – Phil Collins