[SYNTH-FOLK] Despite their wildly disparate fanbases, synth-pop and folk actually have much in common—fey vocals, self-satisfied cleverness, evidence of a short lifetime spent in one’s bedroom. Still, you don’t see too many artists successfully shift between the two genres. Helio Sequence is attempting to do just that.
Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the Portland duo’s fourth album does so a bit less effectively than its predecessors. It begins well enough with “Lately”—a shimmering, lightly chugging ballad punctuated by chiming guitar figures and orchestral flourishes, all floating above digitized prettiness. It’s the sort of shuffling anthem that would’ve risen on the British charts a decade ago, and the album’s packed with similarly arresting moments of ambient melodicism.
But, weirdly, it’s also stuffed with pick-happy country riffs that inevitably overwhelm. While the tunes sound marvelous on their own, side by side they become counterproductive: Folk elements emphasize a soullessness within electronic music while the eclectic production lends a whiff of cheese to the acoustic strumming.
There’s word that singer-songwriter-guitarist Brandon Summers suffered throat problems shortly before recording, and one wants to be fair. But the double-tracked vocals, poignant and fragile amid shoegaze soundscapes, fall limp when tackling the unreconstructed folk (“No Regrets,” for instance, finds Summers employing a Vedder-like strain). And what have to be conscious attempts at Dylan impersonations, especially with the metronomic rhyme schemes (see “Broken Afternoon”), seem utterly misguided.
Still, there’s much here to like. Summers and percussionist-keyboardist Benjamin Weikel’s more straightforward synth tracks (“You Can Come To Me,” “Hallelujah”) pulse with a perfectly choreographed sense of space. But, again, Summers’ unchanging sing-speak, so effective in conveying the subtleties of romantic turmoil, actively irritates when describing problems outside our narrator’s head, even as the sonic backing remains resolutely gorgeous.
Folk, at its heart, is a music meant to be shared—a form of oral history, of social change, of communing through the generations—and the swirling solipsism of Helio Sequence’s best work demands headphoned isolation. Never insincere, Summers’ attempts toward expanding his lyrical concerns simply seem limited. Some artists were only ever meant to illustrate their own hearts. But, Jesus, isn’t that enough?
Keep Your Eyes Ahead comes out Tuesday, Jan. 29.