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Helm, "World in Action"

cover imageLuke Younger’s latest EP draws inspiration from his fascination with the UK's media chaos surrounding last year’s Brexit vote.  I suppose that is arguably one good thing to come out of that dark bit of recent history, but Helm already seemed to be doing a perfectly fine job producing fine albums without that unfortunate muse.  Inspirations aside, Helm EPs generally tend to feel a hell of a lot like maxi-singles and they only surface when Younger has made a significant creative breakthrough.  World in Action is no exception to that trend.  In this case, that breakthrough takes the form of the 9-minute "Blue Scene," a gloriously skittering and jazz-damaged cacophony that often resembles a hallucinatory flock of worried geese...with a groove.  Naturally, the remaining three pieces adhere to characteristically Helm-esque levels of quality, but it is quite clear that the wildly skwonking, must-hear tour de force of "Blue Scene" is the reason that this release exists.

The Trilogy Tapes/Alter

One aspect of Luke Younger's art that I always find intriguing is his ability to continually evolve Helm's aesthetic without losing his direction.  I often grumble about artists who are chameleonic, but Helm is an example of such a practice actually working quite well: no matter how many esoteric new influences Younger absorbs, he always seems to filter them distinctively through the "Helm" prism.  Case in point: the opening "Blue Scene" is far more indebted to free-jazz than it is to electronic music, but the layered squalls of gnarled saxophones and shuffling drums sound perfectly at home.  It is not terribly hard to see how the confused and overlapping jumble of jabbering horns relates to the media coverage of Brexit, incidentally.  It would be a gross oversimplification to focus exclusively on the more dissonant aspects of the piece, however, as there is a very cool looping brass hook that holds the piece together beautifully.  Without that component, this would feel like the work of a dilettante.  With it, however, "Blue Scene" is absolutely perfect.  In a way, it reminds me of Terry Riley’s classic "Poppy Nogood" beefed up with a bit more snarl and momentum.  Of course, there are also some more distinctly Helm-esque touches in the mix in the form of buried industrial textures and brooding synthesizers, but the real beauty of the piece lies in the masterful juxtaposition of roiling, honking chaos and an unstoppable and perversely soulful groove.

The following "Candy" is a bit more in the expected vein, however, as it is a brief and sketchlike piece that marries a quavering and hazy drone to some stuttering and clattering metallic percussion.  It certainly offers some wonderfully crunching textures, but it ends a bit too quickly to feel particularly substantial.  The title piece takes a somewhat similar (if noisier) approach, erupting into a heavy industrial/junkyard percussion groove strafed by retro-futurist/sci-fi modular synth bloops.  Much of the credit for its success goes to guest percussionist Valentina Magaletti (Raime/Vanishing Twin), as she conjures up quite a bludgeoning racket, but it would not be nearly as heavy without Younger's textured and grinding layers of noise and bulldozing sub bass.  The two artists make a fine pair, as "World in Action" is both concise and crushing.  The EP closes with yet another fine piece, "After Dark," which reprises the "snarling brass loop pile-up" aesthetic of "Blue Scene," but takes a somewhat different direction with it.  This time around, the melodic components feel like they are submerged and fighting to surface.  There is also some rumbling percussion buried deep in the mix, but the foreground is consumed almost entirely with a roiling dull roar of drone.  It never evolves into anything more, yet Younger executes a wonderful balancing act of unresolved tension, as the submerged elements feel constantly on the verge of bubbling up to the surface.

The sole nagging issue that I have with World in Motion is that it feels like Magaletti and Younger never quite fully realize their combined potential with the three shorter pieces.  I certainly enjoy them, but they are a bit lean on hooks and melody.  Granted, no one has ever excitedly purchased a new Helm album hoping for plenty of either, yet it seems like Younger focused almost entirely on the production-side of things with "Candy" and "World in Action," maximizing the density and textural dynamism of pieces that are a little more than cool percussion patterns.  In the case of "World in Action," that percussion is admittedly visceral and hypnotic enough to carry the piece on its own (Magaletti is an ideal foil).  While the same is not quite true of "Candy," it is brief enough to avoid overstaying its welcome.  Younger clearly knows when he has an idea that can sustain a ten-minute song and when he does not. Of course, the more optimal way of viewing World in Action is simply as an absolutely killer single.  Viewed in that light, it is a complete success: Younger has just released what is possibly the finest song of his career in "Blue Scene" and threw in a handful of brief and interesting experiments as a bonus.  That works for me, as I am perfectly happy with just one sustained flash of brilliance per EP.  Artistic considerations about World in Action’s future place in the post-industrial canon aside, it is also worth noting that this EP feels weirdly like it is Younger’s "party album," as the heavy "live" percussion and strangled horns are an appealingly listenable and momentum-enhancing additions to the Helm aesthetic.  I hope they stick around when Younger makes his next leap forward.