[17 March 2008]
Winged things are being set free throughout the Pavlina Honcova-Summers paintings that grace the cover and insert of the Helio Sequence’s fourth album. It’s an apt image when you consider the exhaling, weight-off-the-chest sound of Keep Your Eyes Ahead, a record that scooches even closer to the sweeping gestures of early U2 and New Order than 2004’s Love and Distance. (Consequently, the touchstones of the Helio Sequence’s sound are less concurrent with their Pacific Northwest roots and more in step with the dramatic affect of across-the-pond Big Rock.) The songs breathe big sighs of reverb and echo; they’re cannonballs of anthemic weight launched from more succinct indie slings, great forward pushes of musical release. With each record that it makes, the Helio Sequence (Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel) sounds less like a duo and more like a highly evolved studio project, its ping-ponging, wave-cresting pulses of staccato rhythm taking flight one refrain at a time.
Keep Your Eyes Ahead is all auditory deliverance from the get-go: opening track “Lately”, though it hinges on face-saving bravado (“I’m living alone / I don’t need you anymore”, Summers sings, though it’s obvious his insistence is just a front), fluctuates between palpitating constancy and escalation—essentially a byproduct of the terse interplay between Summers’s guitars and Weikel’s drum kit. “Can’t Say No”, with subtle electronic bubbles at its core, is a soundtrack for a stadium-sized dance floor full of 90-degree dance moves. “The Captive Mind” pulses even heavier, Summers’s Edge-like guitars echoing and snapping around the bobbing groove; a gorgeous, subtle lift in its refrain would register as a lump in the throat if the song’s rhythm wasn’t so gleefully propulsive. Best of all is “Hallelujah”, which channels gospel fervor despite being decidedly un-gospel in practice. In it, Summers sings about singing hallelujah even if, by the lyrics’ own admission, the spiritual connection isn’t exactly strong. The song’s a song of praise regardless—praise for the thing that moves you forward—and a reminder that the hallelujah’s in the song, not the singer.
On quieter and more acoustic-based songs, like the vaguely Dylan-esque “Shed Your Love” and kinda Springsteen-ish “Broken Afternoon”, the Helio Sequence is blatantly more introspective and sonically guarded, not to mention a little beyond its comfort zone of multi-tracked complication. Even more out of character is the closing track “No Regrets”, an oddly lo-fi harmonica sing-a-long delivered with drunken aplomb. These songs resonate as grasps at some sort of stripped-down artistic maturity, when in fact the true signs of the band’s growth are better reflected in those songs that are layered and vast-happy. Moments like these are where the record loses some of its gate-breaking momentum, its gregarious surge—slowing steaming when we’d rather it’d just blow off steam.