REVIEW: Hella, There’s No 666 in Outer Space, Ipecac

Posted March 19th, 2007 by Eric Greenwood · No Comments

On its Myspace page (which it hasn’t check in over a year), under the “Sounds like” section, Hella’s description reads: “If crack was music, thrown into a blender with fruits. yeah.” And, honestly, that’s not too ridiculous of a way to characterize its frenetic, musically dense, freeform sound. Your first few encounters with Hella are invariably puzzling. The music sounds random and insane, even if you’re well versed in math rock or experimental jazz or even Japanese noise. Discordant guitar runs peppered with spastic, frantic, over the top drumming can suddenly shift into a bare bones break-beat overlain with hand claps and within seconds explode back into another tangential discordant guitar run. Hella isn’t improvising, either, even though it may sound that way at first. Every song is carefully composed, and they’re not just incongruous parts glommed together without any concern for form or structure. These guys know what the hell they’re doing.

Guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill have been playing

together since high school before hooking up with Kill Rock Stars’

boutique imprint, 5 Rue Christine. Both can play multiple instruments,

but Spencer’s forte is guitar and Zach’s is obviously drumming. He is

a complete bad ass behind the kit. “Virtuoso” is such a hackneyed

word. I immediately think of annoying guitar wankers like Steve Vai

when I hear it, but it applies to both of these guys because, quite

simply, they can tear shit up. And to make matters even more confusing

or awesome, depending on your perspective, you never know what to

expect from one Hella record to the next. In Fact, Hella’s latest

album, There’s No 666 in Outer Space, on Ipecac records, marks

the first time vocals can be found on every song.

The band’s sound evolved out of a mathematical fusion of instrumental

post-rock, jazzy, acrobatic drum fills, and avant-garde noise. Its

line-up morphs from one release to the next, expanding into a

five-piece for its latest, yet always retaining both Seim and Hill at

the core. Unsurprisingly, 666 also showcases a shift in

compositional style. Seim and Hill make room for the vocals with

slightly more traditional arrangements. Thus, the instrumental bits

are less free and showy, allowing for Aaron Ross’ untamed, versatile

voice. The result is a little prog-rock-ish, but you won’t confuse any

of it with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It’s more

Beefheart-ian and experimental and twice as fast with plenty of stops

and starts (imagine trying to sing over What Burns Never

Returns-era Don Caballero). If it reminds you of The Mars Volta,

too, that’s because Ross’ voice can make runs up into registers that

aren’t seemingly human, much akin to Cedric Bixler’s nasally

histrionics.

Hella’s prior sound was often lumped into the Lightning

Bolt/Ahleuchatistas camp, which has its limits in terms of dynamics

and growth. So, after five years making records, it’s not too

far-fetched for a band as off the cuff as Hella to re-invent itself so

drastically. It’s a pretty big leap, though, and it could easily

alienate long-time fans. I honestly doubt either Seim or Hill cares

too much about that, seeing as how their whole schtick seems to feed

off answering to no one. And when the music is of this caliber, new

fans are bound to be lured in. One could hardly lob anything as

ludicrous as “sell-out” at Hella, either, as this music makes no

effort whatsoever to be commercial.

The dimension that voice adds, though, instantly casts a wider net.

And despite a reputation for consistently bizarre records, Hella’s

selling point has always been its live show. The tension and energy

are inextricably bound to the complexity of the music. 666 takes

the band’s signature complexity and matches it with an emotional

layer. Ross’ delivery is cryptic, almost evil and is exacerbated by

inexplicably arcane lyrics. As dark and strange as Ross tries to be,

though, he can’t help but make the music easier to connect with.

Tags: album-review