Like the Northern California-derived slang word the band takes their name from, the style of music Hella is most comfortable in is rather overdone. As talented as guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill are, the type of math rock they purvey has been done by bands both better and worse many times over. Progressive rock, whose fixation on rapidly altering time signatures and instrumental prowess math rock takes much of its cues from, is likewise filled with bands trying to prove their years spent at Julliard were not wasted. Since their debut release, 2002’s cleverly titled Hold Your Horse Is, Hill and Seim have quite effectively shown themselves to have mastery over their instruments, at times succumbing to indulgence but also staying grounded in their particular style.
Hella’s last outing, 2007’s There Is No 666 in Outer Space, was a first for the band in that it featured three additional members, one of them a vocalist. Hella’s normally instrumental output wasn’t miles different with someone singing atop it; the band’s creativity and penchant for absurdly hilarious song titles (“Anarchists Just Wanna Have Fun” comes to mind) were just as they had always been. Though the record wasn’t terrible, it certainly didn’t seem to befit the band as well as their frequent displays of instrumental prowess does.
Fortunately, then, Tripper serves as a return to form for the band. The lineup has returned to the duo of Seim and Hill. As a result, there’s nary a hint of vocals on the record; the album’s concise running time, at just under forty minutes, is an entirely instrumental affair. Hill and Seim, as always, give it all from start to finish; though there are some not-quite-blistering tempos, there aren’t any slow ones. The band’s energy is impeccable, especially given the complexity of the music. Also, the band fortunately doesn’t become too overindulgent on the record, which makes for a pleasant listen. But there’s the rub; though Tripper succeeds in not being too over the top and serving as an apt summation of the band’s style, it sounds just a little too lived-in. The band’s skill at switching to an odd time signature unexpectedly is still evident, but when that same trick is being pulled over the course of an entire album its effect begins to wear off.
Album opener “Headless” sets the tone for the rest of the record; nearly every track after it mirrors its winding complexity, with Seim’s at times elliptic guitar lines and Hill’s disheveled drum beats meshing in a baffling display of musical virtuosity. The songs always have some sort of groove, but at times the persistent polyrhythms and time signature changes seem so odd that one can’t help but just be both confused and impressed simultaneously. Even though the highly technical approach of the record wears even over a short course of time, it’s still very well done. This is true even of the record’s strangest moments, such as the downtuned, dissonant drum outro on “Netgear,” where Hill plays the drums in such a way that it sounds as if the snare is moments from falling apart.
Though Tripper spends most of its time experimenting in asymmetrical song structures, some of its best moments are the most straightforward ones. “On the Record” begins with a guitar line that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical pop punk record, but not long after the catchy opening, the song descends into a flurry of notes that give way to a boot-stomping, staccato guitar riff. While not a simple song, in comparison to the rest of the material on the record it sounds effortless for the band.
By the album’s conclusion, it’s clear that Hella are back to what they do best. Tripper is likely to please fans of the band, mostly because it doesn’t waste time doing anything but showing just how phenomenally Seim and Hill can play. For that very same reason, however, Tripper isn’t too much of a success for the band. If there’s one thing that Hella doesn’t need to convince anyone after four eclectic studio outings, it’s that they can play better than most musicians. The band is in familiar, comfortable territory, which seems to give way to proper focus as well as complacency.