It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since The Helio Sequence released its vastly underrated third album Love and Distance.
Though it certainly wasn’t the album that finally found the band pinning down a distinct sound, it did reveal them as a promising, young group. The gem “Don’t Look Away,” arguably one of the best songs of 2004, defined the band’s style of Super Mario Brothers rock. Glitchy pops and bursts of electronic bubbles grounded the slippery track until the sprawling, dynamic guitar riffs took over. Lead singer Brandon Summers’s vocals screeched through highs and lows. It found its way onto ski movie soundtracks. The lyrics were a bit absurd, but it didn’t matter. The band couldn’t be held down.
They were untouchable.
But Summers’s vocal cords took a hit after a rigorous tour schedule. Presumably, it was the reason for the length between their last two releases. Or it could have meant the group was taking some time to hash out their new sound, learning what worked for Summers’s new voice. And, well, it’s a little bit of both. The group peppers indie-theme staples of lost love, longing and growing old, hashing out feelings between bits of shoegaze, folk, Wii-pop and lo-fi. But really, not much has changed.
The damage to Summers’s vocals definitely shows, as does the healing process of practicing Dylan cuts.
He no longer gleefully strains through tracks and generally stays on the more reserved side of things. But he’s definitely still listenable. Both “Shed Your Love” and “Broken Afternoon” reflect Summers’s newfound, folky Dylan edge. “Shed Your Love” plays with subtle guitar picks and saunters through a melodramatic tone that resonates through much of the album. “Broken Afternoon” is almost interchangeable with the former, but Summers sounds more like Dylan than ever, softly wailing through lines of “we’ll all see the light of the broken afternoon.”
The group hasn’t completely left their video-game-pop sound behind. “Can’t Say No” warms up with a rousing Mario Brothers-esque intro but throws the poppy fun into the background of the song as the droning shoegaze takes over with Summers, sadly, taking it easy vocally. The song would be perfect for him to showcase his once bubbly, grating talent, but the track can’t get past the repetitive lines “you can’t say no.”
The video game element is nice, but where the band is at its best, is when it embraces the shoegaze movement. “Lately” waltzes through hollowed-out, echoey drawls as Summers ruminates on living without a former lover. “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” quickens the pace and pushes the melodramatic lo-fi sound with more droning vocals and chambered guitar notes. Both remain slightly quirky and rather addictive, though ultimately, rather forgettable.
It’s all an interesting combination – a more mature folk sound mashed between some melodramatics and high-speed shoegaze – but much of it is just hard to piece together.
Are they still poking around genres and trying to see what clicks? Is this what they want to do forever? It’s certainly excusable, considering the change in Summers’s vocal style, but it’s the group dancing between poles, rather than sticking with what’s best.
So maybe the Helio Sequence is a bit lost, facing circumstances out of its control, but “Don’t Look Away” was their style. That was the group at its best. Maybe they’ll find someway to figure that out.