Helm - Olympic Mess [PAN - 2015]
Luke Younger's last release as Helm - 2014's The Hollow Organ - made it onto the Wire's records of the year list. Its refined yet uncompromising take on machine rhythms, industrial atmospheres and submerged techno was a concise enough statement to suggest a lot more to come in the same vein from the London based artist. As it turns out Olympic Mess is quite a considerable step both sideways and forward for his sound and contains more than a few surprises.
The short opener 'Don't lick the jacket' sets the tone with sweeping underwater synth chords vying for space with a multitude of machine sounds and swirling electronic wizardry. Despite the dissonance there's a sense of movement, openness and above all space that will be a recurring theme through the record's ten tracks. 'Exist in a fog' initially takes us back to some of the more oppressive atmosphere's found on Impossible Symmetry, Helm's debut release for Pan. But before the combined weight of drone and machinery gets too much the fog (so to speak) lifts revealing a lovely harmonic drone that carries us up above the clouds. Moments like this hint at the sort of transcendent atmosphere Younger may be channelling from the Balearic disco he claims as one of the records influences. You can hear it again in the melodic washes of 'Fluid Cloak' and the undulating rhythms of 'Outerzone 2015'. This isn't to say that he's downing his distortion pedals in favour of trance pads and glow sticks. Despite being Helm's most electronic record to date the music of Olympic Mess retains a depth and organic quality much lacking from a lot of contemporary dance music.
The brilliant title track turns the Balearic harmonies back on themselves around layered dub rhythms. Here we're not so much channelling the euphoria of the club but the repetition and forced enjoyment of the departure lounge or corporate hospitality suite. The records title points towards the non-event of the London Olympics; all broken legacy promises and deserted arenas; the landscaped gardens good now only as a stage-set for Ballardian dystopic nightmares (or West Ham Utd). Olympic Mess like most records in Helm's back catalogue makes intelligent use of field recordings at key moments. 'Sky Wax (London)' uses otherwise unremarkable incidental sounds; comings and goings, metal gate, shuffle of footsteps, uneasy passages. Drifting across an ever present throbbing bass drone a slow repetition of what could be guitar, hollowed out and twisted almost beyond recognition. The rhythm and pulse of the track eventually fade into the fog, all figures now indiscernible. For all its brightness and nods towards transcendence the pull of the kind of isolationist paranoia Younger has infused into his previous records is never too far away. Recent loop based industrial music from the likes of Vatican Shadow, and the Blackest Ever Black stable are also evident.
I said there were a few surprises and the whispered voiceover on 'Strawberry Chapstick' is certainly one of them. Accompaniment is minimal save for a quasi-heartbeat rhythm. The subject of the whispered conversation is seemingly the early musical development of the speaker;"..dabbling in drums...learning mandolin...", and also being addicted to strawberry chapstick. The significance of this is not obvious and the sparseness of the track does somewhat break-up the flow of the record. It's followed by 'The evening in reverse' which like 'Exist in a fog' takes us back to some of the densely layered industrial soundscapes of Helm's previous output. The final piece Sky Wax (NYC) continues where the previous Sky Wax ended with the lonely guitar sounding motif now joined by dub textures and brooding atmospheres. It's all too brief and finishes the album on a reflective and slightly downbeat note. The lightness and openness of the first half of the album, suggestive of new frontiers, movement, novelty, eventually gives way to a more darkly reflective meditation on place and change. Perhaps a lesson learnt from Younger's months of touring during the album's gestation? or perhaps just that feeling many moderns have, particularly moderns living in cities like London, that the price for our globalised networked society is a profound sense of rootlessness and dislocation, an Olympic mess you might say.Duncan Simpson