A veteran band releasing a self-titled album is one of the more direct statements of purpose in rock music: This new sound, this is our identity now.
Despite an impressive run of albums, sometimes a signature style can come to define a band’s own boundaries. Some bands remain there, some mistakenly take on too-drastic changes, others recapture their essence via expansion and experimentation. For The Helio Sequence, in deliberately confronting those boundaries, a new alchemy is born. And that self-titled record becomes their best work yet.
The Helio Sequence has always sounded bigger than a duo, but on the band’s sixth album, Brandon Summers (guitars/vocals) and Benjamin Weikel (keyboards/drums) leave nothing hiding in the shadows, stretching beyond their prior albums in bold new strokes. The core remains—endlessly intertwining guitars, drums and keyboards—but there’s a palpable thrill in how Summers and Weikel approach and recombine these elements.
“Oh, I’m looking for a new direction / Oh, I’m looking for another way,” sings Summers on the opening “Battle Lines,” introducing the album’s in-the-moment spirit and conveying a sense of openness and yearning that remains throughout.
The Helio Sequence is the result of in-studio brainstorming, a self-imposed challenge to create as much new music as they could in one month. The duo came up with 26 finished songs last May, and from those demos picked the 10 they’d record. The tactic proved to be a breakthrough. Rather than getting buried in the studio, tinkering and obsessing over minutiae, Summers and Weikel pushed unconventional ideas to the forefront and let them come to rest there, coloring in the rest later.
Each of the 10 songs manages to incorporate something in the way of new sounds or structures for The Helio Sequence, exciting shifts that are subtly blended with the band’s well-honed strengths and established style.
“Stoic Resemblance” has a bouncy pop exterior and krautrock underpinnings, the catchiness in Summers’ vocal melodies forming the sunny end of a contrast that exaggerates Weikel’s regimented beat. And the chorus, “I’ve got my redemption and I’ve got my disease / but now I can’t be bothered with reality,” becomes a commentary on the conundrum of 21st century technology.
“Upward Mobility” is guided by both guitar and piano along the tracks of Madchester’s psychedelic dance-rock. “Deuces” swings with a bigger energy, with a tight groove that holds its soaring chorus aloft. And “Inconsequential Ties” brings an acoustic guitar to the party, a breezy respite that brings a refreshing balance to the record.
Even the album art points loudly in the direction of reinvention. The predecessor, 2012’s introspective Negotiations, featured gold lettering on a black background, with black-and-white nighttime photos inside. Keep Your Eyes Ahead (2008) utilized a similarly night-emphasizing design. In vivid contrast, cover of The Helio Sequence is bright and multi-hued, styled after a morning’s sunburst.
Having captured an introspective, late-night vibe so well on Negotiations, The Helio Sequence smartly don’t abandon it entirely, with “Seven Hours” following in the footsteps of that mellow yet mesmerizing album. In its own way, so too does the album closing “Never Going Back,” but the band’s ambitious progression since Negotiations is evident as well, in the swirling background and the ghostly multi-layered vocals.
A thoroughly stunning album is not unexpected after the incredible one-two punch of Keep Your Eyes Ahead and Negotiations, but that the album follows a different formula all together makes it a more remarkable feat. Recalibrated as a looser, more energetic band, The Helio Sequence has created a euphoric, career-defining album.