, October 27th, 2016 15:48
To be labeled a metal cellist sounds nothing more than a lazy novelty misnomer, a play on words that hangs nicely even if the oxymoron rings far from true. Helen Money (AKA Alison Chesley) has used her artistry, if not to traverse the black waves of heavy metal, to explore the darkest recesses of the rock psyche. Her work fleshing out the music of Bob Mould, Steve Albini, Dylan Carlson and Jason Roeder has rendered already apocalyptic visions with an injured yet hedonistic hue; a menacing yet naturalist beauty like charged chain lightning. As a solo artist she has continued to mine these gargantuan depths – yet Become Zero, Helen Money’s fourth record proper and first for seminal underground label Thrill Jockey, dives much deeper, taking us into a world of avant-garde noise and nuance that can only come from the confusing nebula of personal pain and loss.
Both of Chesley’s parents died suddenly in a short space of time, and while she maintains the album isn’t specifically about this, the music is pregnant with the electricity and tension inherent with processing irrevocable change. Become Zero showcases her cello atmospherics, looped and delayed, taut and distorted, but is complemented and assuaged by piano and stuttering electronics (courtesy of Rachel Grimes and oft-time collaborator Will Thomas respectively) for the first time. Starting with ‘Every Confidence’, a mournful echoing line calls from the abyss, a sparse carrion call pierced by dual distorted loops that sound like buzzsaw guitar, which comes back with more bottom-end ferocity in the final third of the song. The effects that float in the moments between (echoed in breathtaking closer ‘Facing The Sun’) give less of a breather and more of an oppressive subliminal howl, something that Godspeed You! Black Emperor has made their mainstay for decades. The tribal drums that permeate the title track (Roeder on typical primal mode) heave with sweat-drenched tension; the chugging strings both a charged echo to base rock convention and the anathema of the same, pregnant with aberrant emotion.
I mention the word pregnant deliberately as Become Zero is as much about dawning discovery and rebirth as it is about closure. ‘Blood & Bone’ strips away the loaded effects, with just Chesley and Grimes playing out a mournful duet that is wracked with pain and longing, but also refuses to give into catharsis, the entwined instruments merging into a sparse yet effusive chimera. Plucked strings and glitching samples flicker and die in ‘Machine’, seeping into syncopating flight, soaring into the stratosphere and burning up at re-entry, fleeting yet powerful, a shooting star. ‘Vanished Star’, on the other hand, stutters in grief yet holds a menacing undertone, railing against the fragility of space and time while offering a glimpse at redemption.
‘Radiate’ may come early in the piece, but is the most obvious purge of the album. Sonorous squalls and portentous saws smash the first minute, before they drift off into the ether, a discombobulated choral sigh stretching across the astral abyss (echoes of MONO emanate most here). While there isn’t a chance for silence, the space afforded to incremental sound is impressive, an aural breathing, at times calm, cyclical, hyperventilation, rapture.
Helen Money is an aesthete looking for the shades between the extremes and trying to make peace with them, yet here, apart from bruising ‘Leviathan’, avoids easy outs, instead molding an elegiac soundscape that scrapes the senses and neutralises the nerves, a scouring of the soul. There is no doubt that Become Zero is a heavy record in every sense, an obliteration of the senses to leave one wrung out and euphoric, offering both epiphanies from Heaven and elegies from Hell.