The debut album by a Converge/Cave In side project that I’m going to call ConCave In to make myself feel clever.
Sometimes I find myself feeling oddly guilty for sleeping on records I eventually discover to be brilliant – as if my attention and money is somehow worth less for not diving in right at the moment of release. There’s probably something interesting to be said about that – the speed at which our obsession with the new relegates things to being Old and Unworthy at ever increasing, disorienting speeds – but I don’t want to sully a review of such a fun record by turning into some dreary half baked sociological treatise. Because Helium Head is an album which manages to do something many attempt but few actually achieve: despite being a wildly technical record, full of rampant and unusual drum patterns, weird time signatures and counter-intuitive guitar lines that shouldn’t work but somehow do, it’s just straight up, capital-F Fun. It manages to do all tha without feel showy or cluttered. It’s just unbridled joy. It sounds nothing like Fang Island but gives off a similar feeling that I get listening to that blizzard of delirious shredding. Things this technical and heavy have no right to be light and fun. It defies the laws of metal physics.
I came late to this particular party as when it came out I read that it was a Cave In side project and filed it in the part of my brain marked, ‘maybe later.’. It’s not that I don’t like Cave In – they’ve just spun off so many bands over the years it’s become something of a chore to keep up with. There have been a few gems amongst them – Zozobra’s Harmonic Tremors being my personal pick of the bunch, sounding a bit like I always imagined Old Man Gloom would until I actually heard them – but the sheer volume of output is too intimidating. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to hear them acting upon every whim and expecting people to pick up the resulting 12″. However Helium Head had an ace up it’s sleeve I wasn’t aware of – their line-up also includes Converge tubthumper Ben Koller, a fact that would have sold me on the idea immediately had I noticed. Actually looking at that sentence back I realise “Tubthumper” is a ridiculous dysphemism to use for Koller’s craft- it’s like calling prime era Manny Pacquiao a facepuncher. Sure, that’s what he did, he punched faces, but you’d have to be completely ignorant of the intracacies of his skills to see there’s so much more to it than that. At times Mutoid Man sounds like he’s holding a drum clinic and just yelling at the rest of the band to keep up as best they can. Which they do.
That kinda sums up the listening experience too – we’re of, do try and keep up. I do a lot of listening to records on my walk to and from work and whenever I’ve hit play on Helium Head it feels like they’ve gone barreling down the street ahead of me and I’m playing catch up all the way to my destination. From the excellent Gnarcissist onwards it locks into a rocket-powered groove early and it doesn’t let up. The drumming is matched by frantic finger tapping and riffing from Cave In’s Stephen Brodsky, with the sound being rounded out by third and least heralded member Nick Cageao, whose knuckle draggingly thuggish bass fills the space between the twin tornadoes of drums and guitar. The whole thing buzzes with an infectious giddy energy. I’ve always liked Steven Brodsky’s vocals: he’s got a syrupy sort of voice which contrasts nicely with the heaviosity that often surrounds him. He’s well versed in this kinda stuff with his years in Cave In – but he’s never been in quite a maelstrom of sound like he is here. It seems to swirl around his voice; he acts the eye of the storm, anchoring the whole thing with distorted vocal melodies, occasionally leaping into the vortex himself and bringing the yells and screams. Each member is dynamic and dexterous enough to keep things shifting and rolling through the album’s short running time without anything sounding anything other than effortless.
You get the feeling the band could keep this kind of pace for a lot longer than the album’s short length suggests – but the listener probably couldn’t. They wisely wrap up before fatigue sets in. Mutoid Man is a great name for them – if they were a game they’d be a Smash TV-esque top down shooter (note for the less geeky -Mutoid Man was a giant half tank half man Smash TV boss), all streams of bullets and endless legions of dying sprites. There’s only so much time you can put into those games without suffering some kind of seizure, best played as they are in the midst of a sugar high. So they exit stage left before that happens, closing on The Manimals – a cover of Nina Simone’s Please Don’t let Me Be Misunderstood (most famously covered by The Animals – do you see what they did there?). It’s a bit of a novelty cover, sure, and Brodsky sounds like he’s singing it through a wry smile like it’s late night kareoke. To be honest it has a faint whiff of that early post-millenium time when every metal, nu or otherwise, band liked to have a comedy cover in their setlist. Only, of course, this is much better put together, and like the album itself is in and out before you’ve quite worked out what is happening. The novelty will probably wear off pretty quick on this one, once the, “what the fuck are my ears bearing witness to?” factor has faded. But that’s not a fate I forsee for the rest of Helium Head. It still feels like something of a throwaway sort of side project, some talented friends goofing around and doing what the hell they like. But between them they’re just too damn good at this stuff for it to not add up to something more than that. Once it’s finished it becomes clear Helium Head is the perfect title for it – it’s a giddy headrush of an album, a deliriously, gloriously mental little album with an energy that’s hard not to get swept along with. I find myself coming back to it over and over. If they feel like doing a sequel I’ll be on it from the word go next time around.