Album of the Day: Helm, “Chemical Flowers”

In the music he makes as Helm, Luke Younger has always seemed dedicated to exploring the grotesque. There were moments on his 2012 high-water mark Impossible Symmetry that didn’t sound like music so much as Younger lowering a tiny microphone down his throat and into his stomach, and recording the ambient gurgling and bubbling. By that metric, Chemical Flowers represents something of a shift to the middle: opening track “Capital Crisis” may kick off with a shriek of Pendereckian strings, but it soon settles into a kind of placid ambience, with a warm bed of synths topped with what sounds like the lulling rhythms of a train. Like 2015’s Olympic Mess, Chemical Flowers is meant as a meditation on urban decay and late-stage capitalism, and as such, the songs feel more mechanized, factory-like, and robotic: the bug-zap crackle and speeding-car synths that occupy the foreground of the contemplative “Lizard in Fear,” the CB radio static that twists its way through “Body Rushes.” Younger remains one of the most gifted collagists in electronic music, but here, he puts that talent to work in songs that are more interested in subtly disquieting the listener than outright disgusting them.

That said, this is still a Helm record, and Younger at his most restrained is still plenty disturbing. The creeping “I Knew You Would Respond” is one of Younger’s best songs to date, forsaking his usual accumulation of electronic washes for a loping, stalking bassline and creepy, weeping strings courtesy of Foetus’s J.G. Thirlwell. The electronic sounds in the title track keep changing form, starting out big and major-key and then slowly glissando-ing down to a skin-crawling minor. As with his previous work, it’s clear that Younger’s vision for the future of the planet—and perhaps humans in general—is bleak. But with its frequent pastoral ambience and occasional honest-to-god melodies, Chemical Flowers seems like it offers at least the faintest possibility of hope.

-J. Edward Keyes

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