From Sacramento to Tokyo: The Hella A/V Experience
Are you ready for this? The CD is loading. Only three seconds to launch. Are you sure? ... Two… One… This is it!—“Do you wanna hear Joni Mitchell, asshole? You ever heard Joni Mitch-fuck your shuttin’ mouth!” a woman shouts from the bottom of the ocean—Then the noise, the sound, the music? You’re committed now, 11 more minutes in the first track, 30 minutes in all; no turning back, no return to the surface.
Our favorite red-suited plumber went ballistic after being shoehorned into one too many video games, and exploded the latest exploitation of his character into your current selection, “Gothspel for You Not Them”. In this first song on Hella’s new EP, Homeboy, malformed coin boxes and distorted guitar lines of code jet through the ether: Nintendo’s first dirty bomb. I’m sorry Mario, but our princess is in another castle. You’ll find you cannot climb your way out of here. You’ll ride it out while Hella have their way with you. After all, it’s for you not them. Show some appreciation. Embrace the eight-bit-noise-metal cacophony as it threatens to take your last life. Somewhere past 10 minutes, pacing piano like a tuneless rendition of “Chopsticks” drops in. Say hello. What happened over the last 10 minutes does not matter. You’d have to listen again just to find out. Even then you would have no idea.
“Madonna Approaches R&B Blonde Wreckages”. This you know for sure. Madonna’s confident swagger is easier on the ears than Mario’s frustrated rage. What’s that you hear? Rhythmic synthesizer melody rising above the din? It’s gone in two minutes.
Hella sound like chaos unleashed—electronic avant-garde metal noise-rock chaos. You know it’s okay to stack these up because that’s what Hella do. “BC But Not Before Christ” is a brutal circus. Drums command center ring, punching and kicking and rat-a-tat-tatting so fast that you don’t have a choice but to lie low and pray you don’t get smacked. “Moby Dick” may well have been recorded before Christ. As the song closes, video game prattling surges back; some revenge takes time to exact.
Your first sense of relative peace is earned from the opening 30 seconds of “If I Were in Hella I Would Eat Lick”; eroded by synthesized squeals and whines, artificial keyboard feedback; shattered by a bluegrass-violin-raygun-harpsichord-rogue-drum-machine peace—a peace you could only attain if you were in Hella. Minutes pass. A crazed chipmunk chatters. At 12:01 it falls silent.
Since arising out of Sacramento, California in 2001, Hella have fostered a ferocious aberrance. They have forsaken traditional song structure entirely. Yet you get the distinct sense that Zach Hill and Spencer Seim know exactly what they’re doing—the chaos is calculated. Hella court not the faint of heart, not the strong of spirit, but the courageous souls—the truly brave musical adventurers. Their sound is heavy, but so distant from rock and metal pedigrees that it will appeal more to fans of avant-garde and free jazz than of, say, their recent tourmates Mars Volta and System of a Down. Across Homeboy, Hella render those bands formulaic.
You may wonder—how could Hella possibly be enjoyable live? At a concert there is no Pause or Stop button, no volume control, no escape into the next room. Assuaging such concerns, Hella give you Concentration Face, a DVD containing nearly three hours of live Hella. One performance is presented in its entirety—7 May 2005 at the O-Nest in Tokyo. Others are chopped up and reassembled into an extended music video—3 May at Heaven’s Door in Tokyo, 4 May at the Firefly in Osaka, 5 May at Whoopee’s in Kyoto, and 6 May at Tozuko in Nagoya.
Hella are fun to watch live, but a challenge to listen to. Hill’s drumming is both controlled and spastic; guitarist Seim fixes an amazed gaze on his bandmate as he explores and batters his kit, flaxen hair flailing. Seim coaxes noise and near-melodies from his instrument while feeding off Hill’s fury rhythms. On stage, both members are consumed by their music. They lose themselves without getting lost.
The tour diary portion of the DVD is interspersed with Japanese television clips and video documenting Hella’s travels within and between Japanese cities. Sweaty post-performance confessionals provide further insight: “At least some people came up front. I think that made it better. I’d rather they were standing up, hanging out, like all pushed in, because it’s more intimate,” says Seim after the Nagoya show. Finally, you’ll find footage of Japanese bands that shared the stage with Hella throughout their tour. This half of the DVD is both artistic and funny—one particularly memorable shot shows a string of six Nintendo Game Boys plugged into a mixing board and played like a keyboard. Part One is infinitely more palatable than the unbearably dense Part Two, an 80-minute video of a performance at a mid-sized club venue in Tokyo. If you’re not an established Hella fan, you won’t last even halfway through the concert, let alone enjoy it.
After fast-forwarding your way through the last part of the DVD, it’s natural to feel reluctant to put on the EP again. Playing the record is like inviting an expert gang of noise ninjas to trash your home and slash your pillows. But we both know that someday you’ll be ready again. When you sense it’s time, just Press Start.
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