The Devil is Red

(5 Rue Christine; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 4 October 2007

MMMMMM. Math rock. Don't it taste good. Like raw glass candy. Only for the hardcore. The guys with the big balls. Guys like me.

Because let's be honest. Math rock is hard shit to digest. It's meant to be. It usually requires a formula involving ludicrously analytical rhythm formulations, the skill to actually coordinate more than one instrument to said rhythm formulation, and then more than a mild case of neurosis to actually put the formula into practice. Also, it makes you want to break things. Or maybe that's just me. Also, it puts the man-hair on your flabby little chests.

But look here. I was busy listening to the complete idiot-music that I like to call Daft Punk's Discovery. And then, out of nowhere (let's just say they blindsided your narrator, for argument's sake) these wankers from Hella have just sauntered up into my favorite disco, caused a bona fide bedlam, careening around like speedfreaks on a serious bender, and yes, they've broken my disco ball, and are now shoving the shards of it down my throat, to the stricken horror of, well everyone.

Me, however, I've taken this stuff before. Do these two sons-of-bitches, Spencer Seim and Zach Hill, somehow not think that I've heard, indeed, been doused in the cleansing fire of, their brethren, Lightning Bolt? Sure, Lightning Bolt employ only a bass and drums, where Hella are chest-deep in guitar and drum histrionics, the likes and fury of which are nearly unparalleled. But the ethics of the two are not far from each other. But they are different; and in a grudge match? Lightning Bolt would win.

It's not because Lightning Bolt are more skilled than Hella. In fact, when it comes down to sheer technical prowess, Hella have lapped most of the math-rock pack five times over. They've even lapped, at least once, Lightning Bolt. Zach Hill's percussion is nothing short of a spasm-inducing blitzkrieg, a ceaseless, zigzagging flurry of laser-point accurate snare thrashings and spot-on cymbal accents. Seim, on the other hand, while not so crushingly impressive, nonetheless has a slightly more subtle (could you even apply "subtle" to Hella?) but no less impressive capacity for ruthless precision and hysterical finger-work. But the difference in ethics is that Lightning Bolt has more organization to their chaos; it's an organization that shows up on The Devil Isn't Red in a few places, as a regrettably spare reminder that this whole effort isn't a load of jam-wankery that Hella want to fire off into your face. But it's not there throughout. And whereas you can actually recall the structures and even hooks of many Lightning Bolt songs, from jagged arpeggios to pure built-up crescendos, Hella are often dangerously scatterbrained. Unhinged, if you will. And unfortunately, when Hella fail to really score a theme in tracks whose very inexorable precision and blistering speed begins to become old news, they begin to lose significance. Any kind of interpretation of some substance beyond pure display of, yes, monolithic skill, becomes impossible.

"The Mother Could Be You" (the titles mean nothing, by the way, in relation to the songs) is the perfect example of where Hella both succeed marvelously at their game, but then fail almost too predictably at restraint. A brief, tantalizing bit of dynamic is introduced, oh somewhere around the end of the first minute of the song, when the drums actually slow down and the guitar texture of the song dramatically shifts from that of a blunt, vicious razor shaving off your face to that of surgeon's knife gouging out your eyes. That is to say, the piercing tone of the guitar is consolidated for a moment of breathing rhythm. But then, unable to resist that impulse to obliterate your brief sense of reprieve, the drums kick in with as many possible intermingled bass and snare hits, as though Hella felt guilty for letting you breathe for even a second. "Top Twenty Notes," another track that begins to remotely play with different textures, doesn't even pretend to any kind of dynamic. While returning to ideas of staggered pace developed earlier in the song, the cohesion is cheap, becoming a simple reminder for you, the listener, that Hella really are trying their hardest to work with more than a hodgepodge of smothering, incoherent ideas. But there's no development from one idea to the other.

There are a few intermittent tracks that play around with samples and digitized beats whose effect (if not to immediately ricochet into a nuclear assault of beats and guitar abuse) is simple to insert markers between relentless tracks. As a rule they are a combination of largely worthless fuzzy loops or ridiculous video-game sounds, which, given the dead seriousness of so many of the tracks, don't seem to take on any kind of real humor; they just seem bizarre.

There are a few tracks here that are nearly flawless, both in execution, and in dynamic; they demonstrate the rare points at which Hella try to create more than just a study in rhythm/time signature change mess-arounds. "Suistyle," and the utterly brilliant closer "Welcome to the Jungle Baby You're Gonna Live," are actually enjoyable rather than simply impressive, creating massively different effects through manipulation of distortions, and actual building from idea to idea. On these golden moments, Hella actually come to terms with the possibility that less may be more. On "Welcome…" they finally indulge in some extended playing-out of less intellectually intense, but substantive ideas, eventually arriving at a dynamic, at times even subdued pace considering the unabashed bulldozing self-indulgence that's permeated a good deal of the album.

So what it comes down to is basically this: I mentioned Daft Punk earlier. Very easy-going, mindless stuff. Then came Hella: destruction on wheels trying to rip every little bit of brain out of your reeling cranium with their blistering math-rock. In between there is a happy medium, one where enjoyment equals skill, where analytical playing doesn't bully around songwriting so badly that it gives you a headache; and Hella haven't found it yet. They have developed from their initial disappointing LP, Hold On to Your Horse Is, but only when they've convinced us that they can write more than a couple of songs whose welcome outlasts their playing time can we begin to take them as more than a novelty with insane amounts of skill. They need to flesh out more, and put more effort in than simple execution, at which they seem almost too adept at this point. Until, then, I'm just gonna sit here and listen to that sweet No Doubt single (yes, their "It's My Life" cover is indeed totally sweet). Because music still is, and always will be, less about strain and more about pure, simple enjoyment.