It’s been over a decade since Oregonians Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel teamed up to form The Helio Sequence. The duo’s latest, Negotiations, is the group’s first in four years and offers a strong set of songs that fit almost more than comfortably together. Sonically lush and dripping with delayed guitars and tons of reverbed vocals, Negotiations is a exercise in consistency that many listeners will find incredibly rewarding.
The main draw of Negotiations is that it is, by and large, a mood record. To be more specific, the album seems fit for late-nights when the pain of loneliness runs deep. Take for instance, “October”, a song with a catchy chorus that expresses the ambivalence of wanting a loved one near. This, of course, is familiar terrain for rock music, but there’s nothing tired in terms of the lyrics. On the song, Joe Strummer’s self-reflexive “Should I Stay or Should I So?” gets turned into a directive: “Go, go, go, if you want to go / If you stay, stay, stay, then you’ll never know.” There’s none of the gritty guitar work straight out of The Clash corpus, though, so listeners shouldn’t get the idea that this record is anything resembling punk. Here and throughout Negotiations, the bright tone of the guitars still manage to feel somber and are harnessed more for ambiance than anything else.
“Downward Spiral” is a downright haunting tune referencing a “trainwreck in slow motion”, “happening now or in double time” that could easily pass for Kid A-era Radiohead. The arpeggios and grinding guitar sounds slowly build up to an almost-erratic ending. Throughout the song, we are taken to the very edges, where a sonic release that seems inevitable never comes. There’s nothing particularly flashy with regard to the instrumentation on the song, but the track manages to stand out even when the rest of the record doesn’t stray too far from the formula found here.
There’s something infinitely charming and cinematic about slowing down the vocals when the drumming and guitars keep a steady pace. On “Open Letter”, the sleepily sung “Where is your sense of wrong?” gets repeated while guitars continue to swirl around precise percussion. Like many of songs on the collection, the lyrics do a lot of finger-pointing toward someone who refuses to take responsibility for some past offense.
If there’s an outlier on the record to note, it is “December”, a song that expresses the same sense of doubt found on the rest of the record, but with a few slight differences. Here, the drums (which are heavily spotlighted on the rest of the album) take a backseat to the strummed guitars. What makes the song different from the rest of the record is a call “to bring yourself back home,” a move that shores up some of the emotional ambivalence found throughout the record.
The beauty of Negotiations is in the album’s unprecedented ability to cohere with itself. In a sense, the album marks its own territory with its lush, but concentrated sound. Every component on each of the songs (the lyrics, the guitar tones, the incessant drum fills) is carried over to the next, making the record an obvious choice for listening to its entirety in sequence. Because so many of the songs are nearly indistinguishable, listeners are likely to either embrace Negotiations as a unit or to dismiss it outright. If listeners resist the urge to listen sporadically on their iPods (and I highly recommend that they do), there’s much to be celebrated.