Music critics don’t know what to do with all-female bands. This year’s critical hysteria over Savages is a shining example. What is in reality a pretty middling rehash of post-punk that has about a fraction of the vitality and intellect of first-wave artists of the genre is being heralded as a beacon of artistry for some confounding reason. It’s a cynical view, but part of me feels like Savages — and many female bands — are treated as novelties just because seeing an all-female band is still such a rare occurrence. Heliotropes appear even more at risk of becoming a special treatment band: not only female, all four members are of varying ethnicities and sexual orientations. In a refreshing turn for what is already a refreshing concept, Heliotropes have so far been fairly free of backhanded misogyny in the press, save the old trope of comparing an all-female band to every other all-female band in existence. Heliotropes’ actual closest reference points, however, are stoner rock and many variations on that guitar riff from Jane’s Addiction’s “Coming Down the Mountain”. Even more refreshing than all this, Heliotropes’ debut, A Constant Sea, is — unlike an overhyped album this year by a band whose name rhymes with “ravages” — actually surprising.
Much like their Brooklyn DIY scene mates in Dead Stars (which is a trio of dudes), Heliotropes are also channelling some heavy early-to-mid-‘90s US rock vibes and, while results aren’t as delightful as the former’s High Gain EP, A Constant Sea is still a mildly intoxicating listen. The album has a heavy leaning toward reverb, fuzz, and Zeppelin-esque rhythm sections (courtesy of Cici Harrison and Nya Abudu), but it still clears out a space for gentler moments and motifs. The album’s greatest asset—the violin cameos of Alice Amy Tam and Elizabeth Higgins from Industries of the Blind—isn’t exactly gentle, but the instrument’s swoops and sways imbue songs such as “Moonlite” with a nice melancholy that’s usually lacking from this genre of music. Lead singer and guitarist Jessica Numsuwankijul’s range is limited, but her husky vocals and phrasing are a nice respite from singers who use wailing and shouting as the default for heavier genres of music. Amber Myers’s gentle harmonizing throughout the album doubles this unique touch.
Another promising sign is Heliotropes’ willingness to explore unexpected genres, indicated here through the folky “Unadorned” and the doo-wop throwback “Christine”. While “Unadorned” has a slight hokiness about it, it’s subtly sweet enough to feel endearingly genuine. “Christine”, on the other hand, is arguably the strongest track on the album and definitely Numsuwankijul’s best vocal performance. Such touches as Harrison’s doleful drumming on the track hint at Heliotropes possessing more range than a fair amount of up and coming Brooklyn bands.
A Constant Sea is not without its flaws — a few of the heavier tracks sound a bit too similar and the track sequence is slightly confounding — but it shows more promise than many debuts coming out of Brooklyn these days. At the very least, there are no hints of shoegaze — which certain parts of the borough seem to be enamored with — so any groups rejecting that trend or any others is worth something. Due to being on the tiny Manimal imprint, Heliotropes may not cause scores of critics losing their pants in excitement of rocking females, but in this case that’s something to be thankful for. Female bands can rock as equals. Heliotropes are more than willing.