Breaking Us in Two
The Sacramento, California-based duo Hella has made a name for itself as a torchbearer of cranial hemorrhaging instrumental rock; albums like The Devil Isn’t Red (2004) and Hold Your Horse Is (2002) displayed a fierce domination of technique, uttered in some kind of molten, broken syntax. Guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill demand a lot from their listeners—patience, concentration—and in return offer a challenging maze of noisy, mathy stream-of-consciousness.
The band’s first release for Suicide Squeeze, a double-disc set entitled Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard, is the Speakerboxxx/The Love Below for the indie math rock set. Hill’s descent into experimental gobbledygook is the basis for his Church Gone Wild, while Seim crafted the more accessible, digitally sympathetic Chirpin Hard. By splitting in two, Hella has effectively severed the symbiotic relationship upon which its reputation is based. The frantic streak of unpredictability resonates within both Hill and Seim’s solo meanderings, but anything resembling accessibility has been painfully buried. What is most striking about Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard is its misplaced coherence: as two separate entities, the Hella boys sound uncharacteristically lost, cutting and pasting and violently shrieking their way down their dark and separate paths. The two albums flail and beckon in such obscenely irritating gestures that you can faintly see Hill and Seim searching for each other, leaving respective trails of nonsense in their confused wake.
Hill’s Church Gone Wild is an indulgent, chaotic manifesto of anti-music. It is also unlistenable. It is like Frank Zappa’s sound collages, clinging to a toaster and dropped in a bathtub. It is also worse than that description sounds. According to the liner notes, Church Gone Wild “was written and intended to be enjoyed as one single composition”; although it’s split up into 12 tracks, it retains a sense of continuation. Like a run-on sentence from an annoying neighbor. Full of strangled guitar blemishes, convulsive drum patterns that ricochet into insanity, and various attempts at nonsensical verbal repetitions (“wildlife takes the loser by night”), Church Gone Wild is an irredeemable mess of sonic annihilation. Even if one were to sit through the disc’s agonizing 60 minutes to ponder its assembly and manipulation (pity me: I did), its bald-faced dissonance and incomprehensible senselessness reject all inquiries.
Experimentalism? Sign me up. Keep an open mind? “Open-minded” is my middle name. (Seriously, the legal paperwork’s in motion.) But Church Gone Wild is beyond experimentalism—it is fundamentalist experimentalism, excommunicated from the camp. Noise this depraved and alien and cantankerous is what causes cats to presciently disappear under beds, 30 minutes before it hits the stereo.
Seim fares a little better on his Chirpin Hard, which at the very least, operates like an accessible antidote to Hill’s rubbish. Like Ratatat, Seim finds some of his inspiration in the bleepity-bloopity soundtracks to old Nintendo games: “Gold Mine, Gold Yours” distorts and dements the computer soundtrack; “Song from Uncle” uses Seim’s guitar to hijack the cheery video game theme in the avant-prog stratosphere; and the closing title track (17 minutes, interjected with long periods of silence) boasts the hyperventilating hurrah of a big boss level. Chirpin Hard‘s midsection contains more “standard” Hella fare, little whirlwind gusts of guitar and drums. Seim sets up wicked little grooves like they were second nature (“Try Dis…” and “Trap Kit Whatever” are two examples), but has trouble making good on the initial themes’ promise. The majority of Chirpin Hard‘s songs are a minute or two in length, and they all feel like potentially strong, yet severely limited ideas that never mature into greatness.
The Hella boys have immeasurable talent, as proven by their past (and better) releases; unfortunately, Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard has nothing but complete disregard and contempt for talent. It’s almost as if Hill and Seim are hell-bent on dismantling their young legacy, disfiguring the face of their music beyond recognition and isolating listeners in the process. Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard is a gratuitous example of all intimidation and no rewards. One would be hard-pressed to find anything worth revisiting in an album so cluttered, yet so empty.