Music

The Helio Sequence: Negotiations

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.


The Helio Sequence

Negotiations

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2012-09-11
UK Release Date: 2012-09-17
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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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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