For most of its fairly brief time in existence, Hella was a duo, consisting only of Spencer Seim on guitar and Zach Hill on drums. Any other instruments, not to mention any recorded indications that there were other people involved, were executed with overdubs and a keen sense of any given track’s breaking point. Given this knowledge, perhaps we can excuse Hella for its unfortunate first attempt at an expansion of the largely improvised, unfailingly noisy sound that Hill and Seim had established in the early days of the band; after all, trying to fit your style with that of one other person is a far different beast than trying to fit in with four others.
And yet, Hella gives us its all, despite the unfamiliar territory it is embarking on, territory that has already proven volatile at best for Hill and Seim in previous attempts at rock (or, at least, math-rock) immortality.
The first thing that we notice is the vocals. Most of the vocals are done by a journeyman named Aaron Ross, who has been in a number of different bands for varying (mostly short) amounts of time, and also keeps himself busy with solo work. Unfortunately, what we notice about those vocals is just how utterly ordinary they are. Something like a cross between Chris Cornell (minus the screamy moments) and Les Claypool, Ross sounds for much of the time as though he’s simply trying to keep up with his instrumental brethren, taking words he’s written down and more often than not echoing the exact rhythm or melody line of the guitars, or the bass, or the frenetic keyboards that occasionally show up. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ipecac Records released the album, but this is the type of music that needs a Mike Patton or a Björk out in front, someone who will add interesting phrases and intriguing melodies to the math-rock mix; Ross simply doesn’t have the charisma or the straight-up chops to make an impression as the lead vocalist of Hella.
Making far more of an impression are the vocals of Thom and Greg Moore (of, naturally, The Moore Brothers), whose stratospherically high-pitched harmonies are highlights in the few spots they appear, particularly on the album title-repeating track “2012 and Countless”, a song whose ambient introduction and eventual arrhythmic three-part harmonies add up to a pleasant surprise on this fairly mediocre album.
None of this is to take anything away from the talent of the instrumentalists involved on There’s No 666 in Outer Space; on the contrary, they all put on feats of virtuosity that are sure to melt the synapses of technical instrumental enthusiasts the world over. Seim’s as-fast-as-possible-within-reason style is at its best on the cutely-titled “Anarchists Just Wanna Have Fun”, as he forces everyone else to keep up with him while actually managing to retain some semblance of structure and melody to his playing. In what should be a surprise to no one at this point, it’s Ross’s vocals that eventually drag the song into metal-noodling territory. “The Ungrateful Dead”, even as it is the most traditionally structured song on the album, proves to be Hill’s showpiece, a track that allows Hill myriad chances to improvise (and improvise he does, at speeds unimaginable) beneath repeated melodic motifs. Even newcomer keyboardist Carson McWhirter gets a chance to show his stuff, in a frenetic track called “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” that also benefits from more of the Moores’ harmonies.
Still, despite the precise playing, despite the fact that there are vocals, and despite the presence of plenty of startlingly fresh moments, There’s No 666 in Outer Space is surprisingly forgettable. Almost every track is filled to its breaking point with noise of some sort, and despite the fact that all of it is calculated and intentional, it still comes off sounding like noise. One can’t help but feel that the addition of constant vocals was meant to combat that perception a bit, but the album only comes off sounding worse for their inclusion. With any luck, we will soon be able to write of There’s No 666 in Outer Space as either an unfortunate anomaly or the first awkward step in the long and fruitful career of this new incarnation of Hella. Either way, it’s an awfully long way from being worth hearing.