The Helio Sequence, Menomena

The Helio Sequence

Negotiations, the fifth full-length album written, recorded, and produced by The Helio Sequence, would sound different had it not been for a flood. In 2009, while touring in support of Keep Your Eyes Ahead, singer-guitarist Brandon Summers got an unexpected phone call in the middle of the night. Back home in Portland, OR, the band's studio/practice space was under nearly a foot of water. Heavy rains had caused the building's plumbing to overflow like a geyser. But Summers and drummer-keyboardist, Benjamin Weikel, were lucky: All of their best equipment was either on tour with them, or racked high enough off the studio floor to be spared.

Still, the band needed a new home. After three months of searching, Summers and Weikel settled into a 1500-square-foot, former breakroom-cafeteria in an old warehouse. They no longer had to work their recording schedule around loud rehearsals by neighboring bands, but were free to create late into the night in uninterrupted seclusion. With twice the square footage, the space also had room for more gear, a lot more gear. They decided to use this opportunity to try something different.

Summers and Weikel, who started playing together in 1996 and self-produced their first EP in 1999, have always been gearheads. But it wasn't until the success of Keep Your Eyes Ahead that they could afford to step things up: The duo spent months (and many hard-earned dollars) retooling their studio. They left behind much of the cleaner-sounding modern digital studio equipment and instruments they'd always relied on, and embraced vintage gear that would color their recordings with a warmer, deeper sound: Tape and analog delays, spring and plate reverbs, tube preamps, ribbon microphones, and analog synths.

As the new studio came together, so did the songwriting. It proved to be the most spontaneous, open, and varied writing process they had ever experienced. Weikel, who was listening to minimalist/ambient composers like Roedelius and Manuel Goettsching, had created dozens of abstract synth loops of chord progressions and arpeggios. The two would put a loop on and improvise together with Summers on guitar and Weikel on drums, recording one take of each jam. Other songs like "One More Time", "October" and "The Measure" quickly formed from rough one-minute sketches by Summers, while the down tempo "Harvester of Souls" was completely improvised musically and lyrically in a single take.

Tempering the free form approach to writing was Summers and Weikel's meticulous attention to production and arrangement. Taking cues from the spaciousness, subtlety, and detail of Brian Eno and late-era Talk Talk records, they moved forward. Listening to the recorded live jam sessions, they set to work transforming the ditties into actual songs. "Open Letter," "Silence on Silence," "Downward Spiral" and the title track — some of the spacier, mesmerizing songs on Negotiations — came together in this way. Summers' one-minute demos were brought to life in collaboration by Weikel spending weeks working on sound treatments and synth landscapes to enhance the songs.

Lyrically, Summers affirmed the improvised ethos, working deep into the night ad-libbing alone in front of the mic, abandoning pre-written lyrics and instead preferring to create in the moment. His delivery was largely inspired by the starkness and understated romanticism of Sinatra's Capitol era "Suicide Albums", imparting a more introspective and personal tone. "I used to view a lyric as a statement," he says, "Now, I see it more as a letter you're writing to yourself or a conversation with your subconscious."

This collection of shimmering, reverb-heavy songs is a meditation on those inner dialogues (hence, Negotiations) with solitude, memory, misgivings, loss, atonement, acceptance and hope. Most of all, it's a record that serves as a testament to the beauty, blessing, and excitement of a fresh start.

According to Bernoulli's principle, when an incompressible fluid passes from a large area into a smaller one, as when a wide pipe funnels into a narrow passage, the fluid's velocity rapidly increases. That idea has dozens of practical uses, from the operation of airplane wings to the function of your automobile's carburetor. It's a key part of computer production and the basis of cutting-edge work in the field of hydraulics. And, as strange as it might sound, the legacy work of 18th century European mathematician Daniel Bernoulli also adequately describes the process behind and product of Moms, the fifth and best album to date by Portland's Menomena.

During the last decade, Menomena has become its own reference point. From hooks wrapped around plummeting baritone saxophone lines and nearly inhuman rhythms to serpentine lyrical frameworks and high-concept album art, Menomena has established a singular and unmistakable aesthetic. No one else sounds quite like this band. They embed magic and mystery within pop songs that have never sat still or taken the path of least pressure, just as Bernoulli would have had it.

Since 2010's irrepressible and intricate Mines, though, the pipe has narrowed: Menomena co-founder Brent Knopf took his leave to focus on his solo project causing Justin Harris and Danny Seim—close friends since high school and now well into their second decade of making music together—to recast Menomena as a duo. As science might have predicted, they didn't slow down; they actually sped up, writing, recording and releasing Moms with more focus and speed than ever before.

Harris and Seim didn't invite loads of friends or collaborators to replace Knopf; they made these songs as a duo, intent on proving—directly to themselves, and by extension, to everyone else—that Menomena essentially remains the same brazen band responsible for Friend and Foe, Under an Hour and all the gut-punch, pop-ambition moments therein. They added new instruments, like flute, cello, more of Seim's synthesizers and the tap-dancing that actually laces through the teasing-then-charging opus, "Don't Mess with Latexas." For the first time, Harris and Seim, who each contribute five songs here, talked about what they were writing, too. Seim explored the death of his mother when he was but a teenager, while Harris investigated the way his own family dynamic—a single mom, with a departed dad—left indelible impressions on everything he's done since. The album's pieces connect, then, addressing how people must rise to face or flee circumstances beyond their control. It's perhaps the most appropriately imaginable prompt for a band whose last two years have depended upon their ability to explore, adapt and improve.

The result, Moms, is tragic and intimate, comic and endearing, personal and motivated. In 10 songs and just less than 50 minutes, Harris and Seim cast pop cascades into noise kaleidoscopes ("Baton"), chop and twist a melody until it becomes a big dance beat ("Capsule"), and build inescapable arrays of tension and texture that finally release ("Tantalus"). Opener "Plumage" couples its surge of energy with a cleverly playful study of sexuality, while "Pique" turns the same sort of seemingly impossible tessellated-rhythm tricks that have become a Menomena trademark.

At the close of it all, the slow strangle of "One Horse" arrives as the most poignant moment yet in Menomena's catalogue, piano plinking and strings sliding beneath Seim's existential evasion. It's the perfect summary statement for Moms, an album that explores both a new vulnerability and resiliency within Menomena, a duo that's taken change not as an excuse to opt out but instead as a catalyst for growth.

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The Helio Sequence, Menomena

Thursday, October 10 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at Terminal West

Tickets Available at the Door