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Hella - Acoustics

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Artist: Hella

Album: Acoustics

Label: 5 Rue Christine

Review date: Oct. 17, 2006

This six-song EP is Hella with a twist. The Sacremento duo’s usual hallmarks are intact – combative dialogue, blazing technique, compact compositions – and their cartoon punk humor hasn’t gone anywhere. The difference is that guitarist Spencer Seim plays a “hippy axe” and drummer Zach Hill keeps time on “tambourine." Yes, Acoustics is Hella gone unplugged, minus the candles, flea-market cardigans and studio audience. It’s a strange step for a group that has built its reputation around musical gestures that most see as part and parcel of amplification: speed metal riffs, blast beats, art-rock audacity, prog-rock virtuosity. Even stranger is that the acoustic setting fits the duo so well.

Everything Seim and Hill excel at comes to the fore and everything on their past recordings that has distracted falls away. Seim no longer clutters the group’s interaction with video game detritus, and Hill’s drumming does more than dazzle. Instead, Seim’s angry hives of notes start to sound like Cecil Taylor if he played acoustic guitar, while Hill's tuned snare, telegraphing bass drum and terse cymbals become intricate morse code messages. At moments, like on “Women of the 90s” and passages of “Cafeteria Bananas,” their lines intertwine almost as fugues. Elsewhere the high ratio of signal to noise allows near melodic contours to emerge and gives more organic flow to the pieces. Chordal cadenzas give shape to "Welcome to the Jungle Baby, You’re Gunna Live,” while the dark, trilling theme that appears halfway through “Cafeteria Bananas” feels more like a development than a gesture.

Hella may be more about structure than improvisation, but the comparison to Cecil Taylor is apt for more than resemblance. Imagine if Taylor applied amplification to his near-inscrutable deluges of notes. The result would be nowhere near as transcendent, as the stream of tones would just blur into a roar, instead of cascading and embroidering the air with a million possibilities at once. Hella seems to have learned that lesson. The opening passage to "The Devil Isn't Red" seethes with a furious counterpoint, a subtlety that more volume would have obliterated. The switch to acoustic may be only temporary and a bit of a joke, but it reveals a maturity and shows that Hella trusts themselves to deliver the goods without all the frills. Let’s hope it carries over to the next release.

By Matthew Wuethrich

Other Reviews of Hella

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Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass

The Devil Isn't Red

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