Com Plex, the first album from Portland’s Helio Sequence, is an impressive affair, a swirling, heavily layered slice of space rock which draws on the entire history of psychedelia, from the Beatles through krautrock to shoegazing and ambient techno. That the sounds on Com Plex were generated entirely by relative youngsters Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel is quite a feat — many full bands would struggle to create music this intricate. While the pair have common ground with contemporary space rockers like Flying Saucer Attack and Windy & Carl, the Helio Sequence almost always anchor their flights into the cosmos on accessible — nearly bubblegum — pop music.
Com Plex gets off to a strong start with the pulsing drone of “Stracenska 612,” in which a repetitive keyboard figure forms a base for an equally repetitive guitar riff over which all manner of feedback, keyboard blips, subliminal vocal chatter are laid, topped off with pleasantly melodic lead vocal. Halfway through the song it all clicks into a lockstep groove that goes on longer than it has any business to but still nowhere long enough — the effect is head-spinning and hypnotic. “Just Mary Jane (Calypso)” follows with an equally bent but sunnier pop vibe. The anthemic “Transistor Radio” would be a Top 40 hit if there were enough radio stations prepared to play a song that sounds like the Church filtered through My Bloody Valentine. The rest of the album varies these two templates, including the only cover version of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” worth the time it took to record. (For the record, though, it still pales next to the original.)
By the time of their second album, Summers and Weikel were pegged as part of a shoegazer revival along with bands such as Charlene and Ester Drang. While shoegazing is definitely part of the band’s DNA, their sound has many other aspects. Young Effectuals is less immediate than Com Plex, lacking great, catchy moments like “Just Mary Jane” and “Transistor Radio,” but it’s just as strong. The opening “Reh.Vuh.Lee” is a keyboard and guitar overture not far removed the ambient work of Moby or Aphex Twin which then fades into “Give, Give, Give,” which is a pure distillation of the Helio Sequence — layer upon layer of sound supports a gentle melodic verse building to a chorus that sounds like two completely different songs fit together like an intricate puzzle box. “[Square] Bubbles” summons up the ghost of John Lennon wandering through a warehouse full of music boxes, Atari video games and upright vacuum cleaners. “Cut the Camera” approaches straight-ahead rock and roll before erupting into a tsunami of white noise. “Take, Take, Take” sends off the album on a swelling orchestral note.
Weikel was drafted into the drum seat for Modest Mouse just as that band staged its unlikely but welcome assault on the pop mainstream, which brought his main gig in the Helio Sequence some extra attention, as did the band’s signing to Sub Pop. Love and Distance is less complexly ethereal than the first two albums — usually the duo sound like they’re only playing one song at a time, to name just one fr’instance; the more forceful, rock orientation is another. The songs still have a billion things going on at once, but are simpler (simple being a relative term in this case) and less crazily vertiginous than before. For the most part, Love and Distance builds on the poppier moments of Com Plex — at times it still sounds like it was constructed by blindfolded Oompah-Loompahs tripping on LSD while trying to build a cuckoo clock, but by and large it’s identifiable as pop music overflowing with catchy hooks, verses and choruses.
The Helio Sequence further refined their sound on Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The dense sonic textures are still present, but as a shimmering backdrop behind the tunes rather than a semi-opaque curtain in front of them. Summers’ voice has aged into a pleasant Dylan-ish rasp (reportedly the result of overuse on tour), and the pop melodies are as sharp as ever. “Lately” and the title track are built around sparkling guitar parts, while “Back to This” proceeds against a surging shoegaze background. The folky “Shed Your Love” swells into a psychedelic space which recalls Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning.” The Helio Sequence closes out the album with the ragged, appropriately titled singalong “No Regrets.” So far, this band has done nothing to apologize for.