Menomena and The Helio Sequence are contemporaries, and apparently from their recent joint interview for Willamette Week, friends. They rose to predominance in Portland at the beginning of the oughts, becoming the stalwarts of an experimental pop scene. Appropriately enough, they released nearly concurrent albums and launched adjacent tours last month.
Menomena unveiled Moms for MFNW, and the excerpt on display at the Doug Fir KEXP show was impressive. Their first venture without Brent Knopf, Harris and Seims pulled together a five-piece band, with shimmery guitar, eerie synth, and straight-forward piano pieces playing off of each other in a startling way. The high energy and light humor on display played contrast to the stark lyrics, which rise to prominence on the album.
Moms covers a lot of ground. “Plumage” is distinctively Menomena–driving, catchy, with lots of musical change-ups (and baritone sax!). But it also introduces a narrative that carries through the album, perhaps best symbolized in the song’s video, ending with Seims and Harris stripped to their underwear. Menomena has often seemed introspective, using first-person lyrics, but here they go much further into the realm of vulnerability. On “Pique”: “…I’m a failure/ Cursed with male genitalia.” Or “Heavy is As Heavy Does”: “Heavy are the branches/ Hanging from my fucked-up family tree.” Yikes. Perhaps no surprise, given the name of the album, much of it seems like a letter to an absent parent figure (or two). Heaviness is a repeated theme, but the album is far more. Down-sliding guitar riffs, crazy sounds out of nowhere–they pulled out some sort of bowed saw in the live show–startling instrumentals contrast with and uplift against the down-beat lyrics. At times the album echoes a bit of Pink Floyd, but the musical experimentation here creates a thing of beauty far more listenable than anything Roger Waters ever dreamed up (really, can anyone listen to The Final Cut without considering self-harm?). But the stylistic variation prevalent in Menomena’s work, including a later bit of spaghetti western and schizophrenic Tom Waits to wrap up the album, make it all a fascinating listen.
Negotiations, The Helio Sequence‘s newest, is a jolt for fans who haven’t been keeping track of the band recently. Their work used to be heavy on the electronics, so much so that in concert it was hard to tell what was pre-recorded and what was live. The last album was an about-face, with a focus on vocals that led them, surprisingly, to Bob Dylan. This time around there is not much trace of the Dylan, but vocals are still upfront–opener “One More Time” is a lullaby, with gentle instrumentals that fall to the side. “October” and “Downward Spiral” are lofty, with ethereal guitar and vocals rising above, like later U2 over a packed arena. Later songs, like “Harvester of Souls” and “Open Letter” are more down to earth, pensive, and the closer “Negotiations” is a nice summary. But at several points in the album I am brought back to a deep, dark place in my soul, an impression of similarity with a band whose name I don’t want to mention in this sentence.* I really want to like this album, and maybe it’s just me, but the association is distracting. To be fair, I think I’d have to see this live to see where Helio Sequence is really going with this, to appreciate the effort and artistry in these clearly heartfelt songs.