Helm – Olympic Mess

Sky Wax; I exist in a fog; and Fluid Cloak are very loaded titles for musical compositions. They are evocative and immediately encourage very striking imagery. These are all titles from Helm’s latest album Olympic Mess, but the music is anything but the base associations you might conjure in your minds eye when faced with such luscious wording. The music transcends any known   language and is made from something far more fluid than any music tradition could hope to explain and yet far more complex than could ever be described in terms of an emotion. But yet, I’ll try. I’ll attempt to find similes to appropriate Luke Younger’s work into something corporeal, something that could suffice as narration for the content held within, but words immediately elude me. I want to say Don’t lick the jacket is formed on a basis of obscured samples flitting around a synthesiser trying to pull itself out of a viscous slime of a drone, but there’s more to the album than the naive idea of what constitutes its opening bars. Younger’s work as Helm on PAN has always been the source of eternal critical acclaim for its bold experimentalism and ingenuity, and while Olympic Mess features the same fundamental appeal, there’s something evidently new in the compositions that make up the LP. It’s something that might have been there on Hollow Organ and in his recent live shows, but it’s certainly something that is quite apparent on this latest recording. The cliché in me is compelled to refer to a newfound maturity or a refined sensibility, but to suggest that these elements were absent on Impossible Symmetry is without any real merit. There is a gentle touch to Olympic Mess however and it seems that Younger has channelled more effort into creating tender melodies within the drones to soften their harsh edges. The title track’s melodic charm lies amongst the plucked tones of some obscured source while a pleasant rhythm forms around it. Struck keys build the tension and while elements of noise seep into the composition, they do so just enough to imply their existence without overwhelming the listener. It proves yet again that Helm is a master of creating drone atmospheres, always in control, never letting the moment get ahead of him. He never gets carried away with hackneyed improvisation, always allowing the moment to gestate before moving on to the next and never loitering quite long enough for the music to take an ambient course.

You get the sense that Younger allows the sounds to exist on their own terms for much of Olympic Mess, only applying subtle touches to encourage a direction, but never dictating one. I exist in a fog is one of the more striking examples of this at play. The first vociferous drone is shaped into a pulsating rhythm that seems to have appeared on its own accord. The artist is merely an enigma here and you almost get the sense that these sounds would exist without Younger. He is little more than the innocent whisper in the ear of the machine that turns the cog, a cog that eventually turns the other direction. The result is two very contrasting ideas of fog. The abrasive genesis of the composition dissipates into a comforting sonority half way through its existence without much warning and I can’t help emphasising again the refined subtlety in Younger’s music that’s almost too perfectly summed up in this moment. From the title track to the melodically stunning Outerzone 2015, which drips with the upper harmonics of those meaty plucked tones, there seems to be a concerted effort from the artists to create a sonic landscape that avoids the trepidation of the drone and encourages escapism. Helm’s working methods are still apparent as he moves from modular synthesisers to concrete samples, but you can’t ever trace a line between the two as thye join to form a single thread. At times the brashness of Helm’s experimental approach does shine through in the form of a bellowing noise or scraping sound, but these are always restrained on Olympic Mess and often take their position in the background. Even the eerie monologue of Strawberry Chapstick does little to unhinge the listener with the familiar sound of the lips parting for a breathy voice and taking on a quirky Lynch-like quality. Even the concept of Helm’s sound appropriating the qualities of David Lynch’s visual art form is a presumptuous over-simplification of what is actually behind a piece of music like Strawberry Chapstick. It is however the closest we’ll get to translate Olympic Mess into a language we can even begin to understand. Younger’s latest work will make even the most etymologically prolific construction seem like little more than the simple gargles of a newborn. Our vocabulary is still too infantile to express what we encounter through the music of Olympic Mess, an album that is far more intricate than any dialect we have yet to invent.