Album Review: Hippie Death Cult, Helichrysum

Hippie Death Cult Helicrysum

Most bands get one debut. Here’s Hippie Death Cult‘s second. It’s been an interesting few years in the life of the Portland, Oregonian heavy rockers, who with their third full-length, Helichrysum, mark a new path forward. In the two years between 2019’s 111 (review here) and 2021’s Circle of Days (review here), the then-four-piece built remarkable momentum for a time that at least in part included pandemic shutdowns, and as they resumed domestic and international touring — fests, headlining dates, support slots, the whole thing — later in 2021 they bid farewell to vocalist/organist Ben Jackson. A change up front is always significant, and the departure of the keyboard that had up to then been a likewise formidable presence and distinguishing feature in their sound would probably derail some acts, but Hippie Death Cult not only kept going as a trio, they also faced the departure of drummer Ryan Moore this past January.

Helichrysum, then, represents a kind of going to ground. With Jackson and Moore gone, the band held fast with the core duo of bassist and now-lead vocalist and lyricist Laura Phillips and guitarist/riffmaker Eddie Brnabic (who also produced and mixed here, with assistance from Ben Barnett and Jeremy Romagna engineering) bringing in the classic-styled Harry Silvers (also Robots of the Ancient World) on swing-drums. Tours continued, songwriting and recording obviously happened or we wouldn’t be talking about a new record, and they even managed to get it released in time to keep a two-year interval between albums — whether or not that was a goal, I don’t know, but it’s impressive, considering — while reimagining their sound.

And there’s the crucial point. With Phillips up front and the organ gone, and with Silvers on drums in place of Moore — I’d imagine drummers could opine on their respective styles based solely on the builds of their respective kits on stage; rack cymbals out, soon-to-be-busted crash and big kick in — Hippie Death Cult aren’t trying to deny things are different this time, and that’s about more than just no-keys or the gender of their lead vocalist. They’re diving headfirst into it. In the brooding chug of on-theme opener “Arise,” the rawness of the punch in the bass and the corresponding currents of prog and metal that were in Brnabic‘s guitar to start with are highlighted from the outset, and while the dynamic and the chemistry of Hippie Death Cult has shifted — Phillips letting out the first of the album’s several righteous screams as they transition to the guitar solo at about four minutes into the six-minute piece; a sample about a minute later brings more with the lava-flow finish; not a complaint — both are accounted for in the new incarnation of their sound. It’s a little different, and that can be scary, I know, but the lesson of Helichrysum is that sometimes it’s worth starting over.

From “Arise” on through the smooth-boogie, maybe-written-later-in-the-process “Shadows,” which follows, and into the mellower psych-doom of “Better Days,” Phillips owns the role taken on in the material, and she, Silvers and Brnabic seem to revel in the subsequent centerpiece “Red Giant” and the subsequent hippies-go-metal “Toxic Annihilator,” the two shortest inclusions on the album and, at least as applies to the latter, the most aggressive output they’ve had to-date, in case you were concerned that just because Hippie Death Cult have never thrashed before that might mean they couldn’t do it. They do, and make it their own. Bolstered by the tension of Brnabic‘s speedy chug in “Red Giant” — hard-boogieing through its layered solo with a willful recklessness that, frankly, rules, they set up “Toxic Annihilator” not only with more vocal screams (as opposed to the tubes in their amps, likely also screaming) but a swagger they’ve never really shown before in a brief, stage-minded series of stops as well as the riff parade preceding — the energy at the start of “Toxic Annihilator” is electric, palpable.

Hippie Death Cult

The last time Hippie Death Cult made a three-minute song it was the acoustic interlude “Mrtyu” on 111. In its production, “Toxic Annihilator” isn’t metal, but in its actual construction and purposes, it most definitely is, and it’s easy to imagine that what feels so much like it was written for the stage is duly flattening in a live setting. Atop a torrent of guitar, Phillips shouts her way through the early verse with Silvers‘ crash for complement, then croons through the build up to an almost Slayer-ish growl (thinking Tom Araya at the end of the intro to “Angel of Death,” minus the high note preceding) at the transition point to a headspinning, hypnotic digging in marked by another scream at the start of the next cycle through before the making-sure-the-barn-is-all-the-way-burnt solo finishes.

For anyone missing keys, the penultimate “Nefilibata” is introduced by organ before it nestles quickly into its midtempo groove, and all seems business as usual — amazing how effectively ‘usual’ is redefined here while staying true to a high standard of what that means — until a layered arrangement of melodic vocals marks it out from its surroundings, emblematic perhaps of a reconstructed band trying something new that might or might not further manifest in their sound as they move forward, but it makes “Nefilibata” a late highlight, and with the reorientation of that initial organ line, there’s no interruption to the flow that has carried them really from “Arise” without any more hitches than they’ve seemingly wanted there to be as they turn to “Tomorrow’s Sky” to close, the by-now familiar thud of the drums, a spacious guitar, and yes, a little more keys, coming about as close as Hippie Death Cult might to drift with the guitar floating above, mirroring the lower-frequencies of the drums and bass holding the rhythm while feeling bright and engaging in the doing.

Fluid front-to-back, “Tomorrow’s Sky” wants nothing for angularity as its early melancholy gives over to a verse with a lightly progressive feel and the band oozes toward the somewhat-understated winding finish with a grace that’s both familiar from what they’ve done in the past while also distinct from it in form. New, in other words. It’s not just that Hippie Death Cult went through lineup changes before they made their third LP. They took advantage of the opportunity those changes represented to bring new perspectives to what they do, and so while Helichrysum is more outwardly raw in its sound than they’ve been before, the songs that comprise it benefit from the vitality that becomes so much of the album’s focus. They will, one hopes, continue to grow organically as they settle further into this modus over the next few years, but the efforts they’ve made and the resilience they’ve shown already have their payoff here.

Hippie Death Cult, Helichrysum (2023)

Hippie Death Cult on Bandcamp

Hippie Death Cult on Instagram

Hippie Death Cult on Facebook

Hippie Death Cult on Soundcloud

Hippie Death Cult website

Heavy Psych Sounds on Bandcamp

Heavy Psych Sounds on Instagram

Heavy Psych Sounds on Facebook

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply