Some folks like to take a little time each day to remind themselves what they’re grateful for. As for me, I am grateful for the electric guitar, the instrument that just keeps on giving. Although it has lately fallen out of fashion, and has, in many cases, ceded its place at the table to its younger, upstart cousin, the synthesizer, something about the electric guitar still inspires creativity. Together, the unruliness of its squeaky circuits, the limits of its tone, and the disorder of its six jangling strings encourage musicians to go beyond the surface of themselves and come up with something that is messy, imperfect, and human. Strange that even now, in the age of convenience and comfort and brilliant electronic music of all varieties, the rather too big, too unwieldy, and almost archaic assemblage of wood and wire would still have something to offer us. Isn’t it played out? Doesn’t the guitar seem like something of an anachronism? Isn’t guitar rock over? Sometimes I do feel that all the rock & roll classics have already been written. But I think that the sheer assertiveness it takes to rake a pick across strings will always force us, and particularly those of us who are women, to let loose a bit of the inner chaos that is our passion. The perfect pop song would sound something like a machine — stereotypically feminized, carefully controlled, and pleasing to the ear — but the electric guitar always wants to sound like an animal. To paraphrase the poet W.B. Yeats, only plug in a guitar and “the center [of a song] cannot hold.” A ghost in the machine, that guitar-spirit still gets in the way of pop music however it can. A Constant Sea, the debut album by the Brooklyn quartet Heliotropes, is the sound of deep, troubling metaphysical questions smoldering atop a pyre of flaming guitars. The overarching dilemma of the album seems to be this: Can you speculate about deep philosophical questions while rocking really hard? And most of the time, the guitars do rock pretty damn hard — as do the bass and the drums. Be forewarned: This is no cutesy Brooklyn triffle with echoes of the Vivian Girls. This is more like the three fates communing to discuss the Central Problems in Philosophy while listening to Black Sabbath, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails. Singer-guitarist Jessica Numsuwankijkul meanders through the surreal landscapes of fever dreams, encountering various heavenly spirits, doves, lovers, and their glittering eyes, as well as snakes, ghosts, the sickle of Death, and other spirits from the underworld. She aims to guide us “through the darkest and silent spaces of the heart/lest we forget who we are.” Yet Numsuwankijkul’s lyrics give the sense of secrets lying in wait for us above, as well as below, and, interestingly, she demonstrates an interest in exploring both realms equally. “There is a snake/There is a dove/And so below as it is above,” she theorizes, sounding a bit like William Blake, as she digs into a guitar riff that can only be described as killer. Numsuwankijkul’s comfort with all that is unsettling and ambiguous; it also makes her a compelling songwriter. “Don’t want to be your black and white/Don’t want to be your light and dark/I don’t believe in good and evil anyway,” she scoffs, and, indeed, her vocal lines can often venture out from the terrain of traditional, alternative rock into unique shades of grey. The texture of the guitar is often expertly crafted to suit the song. The guitar tone in “Quattro” is pure Neil Young solo — crunchy and guttural. The fuzzed-out guitar sound on “Moonlite” lays the groundwork for a soaring violin solo. “Everyone Else,” a metaphysical love song, floats above a spacey, suggestive guitar line evocative of Radiohead circa OK Computer. The gentle, psychedelic shimmer lets us focus on Numsuwankijkul’s most moving and direct lyrics, which find her observing a lover across a crowded room: “Come near me/I love to see your eyes as they glitter in the darkness/all alone as if they were mine/like everyone else was immaterial.” Interestingly, despite strong, doomy foundations, a furiously groovy rhythm section, and enough classic guitar riffs to fill a book about classic guitar riffs, the band really seems to come into its own in moments of quiet contemplation. Background vocals by singer/tambourine player Amber Meyers add heavenly harmonies to Numsuwankijkul’s wail on “Good and Evil,” and the breaks in the gloom come across like lullabies in the midst of troubled sleep. Sudden changes in mood occur several times in a single song, and can make the songs feel a bit disjointed. However, when they work, these moments of contrast really work. It’s when elements of gentleness pierce the wall of sound that Heliotropes start to sound like no one but themselves. So can you bring a ghost back from the dead by psychic connection? Does the spirit really outlast the body? And is this world real, or just a fever dream? We still don’t have a definite answer to any of these questions, despite Heliotropes’ best efforts. But this very promising debut succeeds in breaking down all sorts of boundaries — between stoner metal and lilting girl group harmonies, anger and desire, this world and the next. It turns out that if you allow enough guitar into an album about metaphysics, then the wild, uncontrollable, feminine energy of the instrument ends up messing with all these false dichotomies that the rational mind is so intent on trying to uphold. Magic, whether we’re talking about the magic of spirits or the “magic” of creativity, is always recognizable by its power to transfigure what already exists into something new.
Amy Klein (Leda, Hilly Eye, Titus Andronicus) Talks Heliotropes’ A Constant Sea
Some folks like to take a little time each day to remind themselves what they’re grateful for. As for me, I am grateful for the electric guitar...
By Amy Klein | August 23, 2013