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Helen Money, Arriving Angels: Friends among the Shrapnel

Los Angeles-based cellist Alison Chesley has been releasing albums under the Helen Money moniker since 2007, and in the interim, became something of a staple in Chicago’s formidable heavy underground. Contributing to Yakuza and Russian Circles (among many others) while also following up her self-titled debut with 2009’s excellent In Tune (review here), Chesley returns with her Steve Albini-produced third album, Arriving Angels. The 40-minute mostly-solo full-length also marks her Profound Lore debut (which makes Yakuza among her many labelmates), and features guest contributions from Neurosis/Sleep drummer Jason Roeder on the tracks “Beautiful Friends,” “Radio Recorders,” “Shrapnel” and the closer “Runout,” but though the circumstances of the release has changed and the drums and appearances from jazz pianist Dennis Luxion on “Beautiful Friends” and “Runout” note a shift in approach toward a less singular, cello-based musicality, there’s a lot about Arriving Angels that remains consistent with Chesley’s prior work in/as Helen Money, most notably the evocative atmospherics she creates using the cello and a range of loops and effects. She can be alternately minimalist, as on the Pat Metheny cover “Midwestern Nights Dream” that begins the second half of the tracklist or build layer upon layer to mount a consuming and dynamic swell as on “Upsetter,” filling out the starts and stops of one progression with the higher-register movements of another. All this results in an album varied and progressive, but also working (obviously) around a central musical thematic, that is, the cello itself. There are no vocals, no guitar or bass, no keys other than Luxion’s piano – which admittedly plays a significant role in the closer – and even Roeder’s drums on “Beautiful Friends,” “Radio Recorders” and “Runout” are looped, so Arriving Angels is still very much Chesley’s record, a showcase for what she does with the cello, opening with a full-toned volume swell of drone and foreboding echoes of distortion on “Rift,” which serves as much as an introduction to the album as a track in its own right, patiently developing and then abandoning a build to bring on layers of rhythmic chugging (yes, a cello can chug) that act as a bed for biting leads and complex interplay between the cello and itself.

The song turns vaguely psychedelic with backwards swirls and a devolution back into the droning noise from whence it came, and in its course, it establishes much of Chesley’s modus for the rest of the LP, “Upsetter” opening with creepy repetitions before bursting into jarring avant rhythm – you could call it aptly-titled, since whether it’s the threat of the atmosphere in the first cycle or the unwillingness of the second to let you get ahold of it, something here is probably going to upset you – running through the course twice before the three-minute mark, at which point a higher swell draws the song to what feels like a close, only to have the initial repetition resume as an outro that serves just as much as an introduction to “Beautiful Friends,” which sets clean and distorted lines against each other almost immediately – Chesley showing a bit of Neurosis influence in the distorted march – only to set a start-stop chug to what feels like an extended tom fill from Roeder, both stopping, then starting again. Luxion’s piano comes on as the drummer takes to his ride cymbal, but it’s Chesley that ultimately emerges, first in the right channel, then the left, to draw the cut to its conclusion with a part that, if she took another eight or nine minutes to ride it out to a massive tide of post-doom heaviness with a full band behind her, bass, guitar, drums and keys, I don’t think I’d complain. That, however, isn’t how Arriving Angels runs its course, and “Radio Recorders” begins with sustained notes and drums from Roeder that up the intensity even from what he was doing on the prior cut. I don’t know if that’s a loop (Michael Friedman is credited with programming loops on “Beautiful Friends,” “Radio Recorders” and “Runout”), or if Roeder is playing that part live, but either way, it sounds like a good way to blow out a shoulder. The drums come and go amid effected cello churn and swirls, and massive-sounding distorted line soon makes a bed for a lead that’s melancholic almost to the point of being doomed, the song lulling the listener into a false sense of security only to have Roeder’s drums pick up again and themselves layer to a faded finish.

“Midwestern Nights Dream” first appeared on Pat Metheny’s 1976 full-length, Bright Size Life, and Metheny isn’t the first guitar hero whose work Chesley has adapted for her instrument of choice, the self-titled having featured a cover of Neil Young’s “Birds” along with an original tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Here, the intricate sparseness of solo plucked strings provides a shift from the layering of “Radio Recorders” and “Beautiful Friends,” relying on a comparatively simple melodic reach to effectively give Arriving Angels a moment of respite. At three minutes, it’s the shortest piece on the album, and it gives way to the longest in the 6:24 title-track, which is bold in its experimentation and ambience, managing to be ethereal in its method and yet grounded so completely in the earthy tone of the cello, Chesley weaving layers through channels and arriving at a riff toward the middle of the song that’s like something out of noise rock before starting the build over again, rolling through and gradually revealing the quiet line that’s been underlying the song for an untold amount of time, something you already knew was there but hadn’t heard. It’s a challenging work, but perhaps the most accomplished of the album, moving smoothly into the slower, languid pacing of “Shrapnel,” its downtrodden atmosphere punctuated by the return of Roeder’s drums. Where “Arriving Angels” kept only the vaguest of sonic allegiances, “Shrapnel” essentially develops a single progression for its five-minute runtime, Chesley and Roeder rejoined by Luxion on “Runout,” his piano standing for a time alone with Roeder’s toms while Chesley steps back into a complementary rather than leading role. The result – thanks in part to the open-air sound of Albini-recorded drums – is a more expansive feel, and where some of Arriving Angels can feel oppressive for the layering, shifts from one part to the next and loops, when the drums and cello drop out after four minutes in and Luxion is left alone playing sparse piano notes, the effect is simply gorgeous. Chesley returns after a time to run through a few measures that in turn give way to a quiet hum that fades as the album’s epitaph. Like her first two Helen Money albums, Chesley’s work on Arriving Angels is intricate enough to warrant a headphone listen, and satisfyingly rich despite the last of traditional rock instrumentation. Her continuing interest in some of the forms of heavy music – i.e. the way she has the album structured, some of the “riffs” she plays, some of her associations and collaborators – has once more paid adventurous dividends, and though like In Tune and Helen Money, Arriving Angels’ experimental evocations won’t appeal to every listener, they nonetheless offer a sound that is markedly individualized and an interpretive sense that is Chesley’s alone.

Helen Money’s website

Profound Lore

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