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Hella - Tripper

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Artist: Hella

Album: Tripper

Label: Sargent House

Review date: Oct. 5, 2011

Ten years ago, two happy mutants from Sacramento formed a band called Hella. Zach Hill played drums and Spencer Seim played guitar. Both were self-taught musicians, and together they developed a feral-child musical vocabulary based on intuition, insular chemistry and punky, convention-flaunting avant-gardism. It sounded, for better or worse, unique.

As Hella, Hill and Seim spent the past decade defiantly digging their way into an eccentric sub-niche of the indie rock continuum: too straightforward for the avant-geeks, too fidgety and cerebral for the metalheads, too quiet for the noise freaks and too weird for almost everyone else. Their minimalist set-up belay an obsessive, hyperfocused maximalism. Hill’s frenetic, polyrhythmic drumming and Seim’s twitchy guitar skronk tangled chaotically, fighting to occupy every square inch of sonic real estate. The results were sometimes bewildering, sometimes exhausting, but never boring.

Hill and Seim’s musical chops are undeniable, and even at their most gnarly and obscure, there’s a level of visceral joy in their performance. For Hella, as for any band truly worthy of the term “experimental,” process is its own reward. If their 10-year careers are any indication, they’re having a great time doing what they do. Hell, they’re basically an institution.

In 2007, Hella unexpectedly expanded into a five-man operation (with a singer, even!). When Spin panned the resulting album, Hella responded by printing the two-star review on t-shirts, stating “We don’t listen to spazz-core journalism.”

This year, they’ve made an album called Tripper, a back-to-basics affair sans hi-fi flourishes and additional members. Gone are the loopy, long-winded song titles that were, and still are, one of my favorite things about the Hella discography (“Bitches Ain’t Shit But Good People,” “Welcome to the Jungle, Baby, You’re Gonna Live!”)

As always, the Big Question is whether the pleasure Hella takes bashing out new improvisations on one inscrutable theme — and playfully tweaking critics in the process — translates into a compelling listening experience. Fanboys on Drummerworld have rapturously dissected how Hill does his thing, so it’s up to the rest of us to ask, why?

The late Don Van Vliet once stated his opinion of traditional rock’n’roll thus: "That ‘mama heartbeat,’ that ‘bom-bom-bom’ — it’s so boring, it’s so banal. So hypnotic. I don’t wanna hypnotize anybody. I just wanna play.”

To adopt Beefheart’s formulation, if trad-rock’s “bom-bom-bom” is a hypnotic, then the tenuously organized chaos of Hella’s sonic splatter paintings equals your stimulant of choice. Listening to Hella can certainly yield a similar battery of side effects: invigorating, euphoric highs; restless, jittery, disorienting lows. Call ‘em a Magic Band for the post-hardcore attention deficit generation. And, perhaps, a helpful shot in the arm for a scene whose celebrated buzz-bands are largely mired in a haze of nostalgia and hypnagogia.

Tripper is the cleanest, leanest — and, arguably, most accessible — record Hella have made as a duo, showing off some fantastically tight playing and even a few hints of what their music desperately needs: clarity.

“Headless” has a hook that is actually hooky. “On the Record” is practically pop-punk. “Furthest” is a delightfully country-fried number that sounds like it was written by a cybernetic hybrid of John Fahey and a hacked Nintendo console.

Complexity and unpredictably are, generally speaking, positive qualities for art, but complexity and unpredictability for their own sake generate self-indulgent nonsense. Inventing your own language is a neat trick, but unless you find ways to include other people in the conversation, you may as well be talking to yourself.

I’m still not entirely sure I “get” Tripper — and I kind of hope I never do, because puzzling it out is half the fun — but I think I’m finally starting to get a sense of what it’s like to enjoy listening to a Hella record as much as Hill and Seim clearly enjoy making them.

By Rachel Smith

Other Reviews of Hella

Hold Your Horse Is

Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass

The Devil Isn't Red

Church Gone Wild / Chirpin' Hard

Concentration Face/Homeboy


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