The Helio Sequence, Menomena

The Helio Sequence

The self-titled sixth album by The Helio Sequence began with a friendly competition. Several of the duo’s friends within the Portland, Oregon music scene had been playing “The 20-Song Game.” The rules were simple, playful and ambitious: Songwriters would arrive in their studios at prearranged times and spend all day recording 20 complete songs. When they were finished, they’d have a party, listen to the results and talk about the process—of taking the good with the bad, of letting creativity push past constraint, of simply making music in the moment. Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel took the spirit of the “The 20-Song Game” to heart, and forged ahead writing a new record.

“Negotiations was a very long, introspective process,” remembers Summers of the band’s 2012 Sub Pop LP. “We shut ourselves off from the world and disappeared down the rabbit hole. That’s how we tend to work, but we wanted to try something new, open and immediate.”

In a sense, The Helio Sequence had spent their whole career preparing for this record. They’d sunk entire recording advances into studio purchases, collaborating with local engineers to build custom gear and a space where they could blend high fidelity with kaleidoscopic sound. In 2013, the pair took on their first full-scale production project, the Brazilian rock band Quarto Negro, after the group inquired about their space and availability through Facebook. As producers, they’d remixed Shabazz Palaces, picked up mixing sessions with Portland acts and earned representation from Global Positioning Services. Summers and Weikel discovered just how adaptable and powerful their studio could be.

In May of 2014, inspired by the “20-Song Game”, they began arriving each morning in their Portland space—housed in the cafeteria and break room of an old warehouse— with the mission of making as much music as possible in one month. They began exploring and capturing, recording guitar riffs and keyboard loops, drum patterns and bass lines. One piece documented, they quickly advanced to the next idea. Summers and Weikel didn’t discuss what they were making or the reference points that informed it, though such discussions had once been central to The Helio Sequence’s more self-conscious process. They just played. Created. In time, they returned to each fragment, broadcasting it over the studio PA, jamming and recording the results. Mistakes didn’t matter, and second chances didn’t exist. After two weeks, Summers and Weikel began cutting those loose takes into rough shapes, steadily building songs from their cavalier sketches.

Although making records can be a laborious and tedious process, Summers delights in the memory of making this one.

“We were coming to the studio on these sunny mornings everyday with an open mind,” Summers shares. “We said, ‘I’m just going to do what feels good in the moment.”

“We worked so quickly that there was a running optimism,” he continues. “There’s this sense of striving for perfection where you can actually take momentum away. But we wanted this record to be momentum in and of itself.”

When June arrived, the duo gathered their 26 finished songs and sent them to 31 friends, fans and family members. They asked each person to rank their 10 favorite tracks. By summer’s end, they had arrived at the brisk 10 tracks that shape the breathless and magnetic The Helio Sequence—a record so named because it’s a kind of clean restart for the longtime pair, a revamp of their process and a revitalization of their results.

The Helio Sequence is a renewed push forward for the band: From the cool wallop of “Deuces,” where guitars snarl and harmonies soar, to the stuttering anxiety of “Upward Mobility”, where pianos pound and drums race, this collection depends upon an effortless kinetic energy. Lyrically, “Stoic Resemblance” is a study of existential anxiety, but musically, it’s a beguiling burst of pop, Summers’ vocals rising over and sliding off of Weikel’s big, irrepressible beat. The bittersweet “Leave or Be Yours” evokes the easy twinkle of romance and the smoldering sadness of losing it. Crisscrossing vocals and cross-talking guitars and drums map a broad swirl of emotions.

With its easy acoustic jangle, “Inconsequential Ties” might be one of the most surprising, light moments within the bombastic Helio Sequence catalog. But considered within the band’s history, it points to the pop that’s bound Summers and Weikel for so long. Indeed, there’s a delightful candor to The Helio Sequence, an openness that is a rare and special feat for a band about to enter its third decade.

“It’s less about curating yourself or trying to put yourself across how you want to be perceived,” says Summers. “It’s about having a conversation with people and giving them something that’s who you are.”

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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