Olympic Mess

Up until now, charting the avant-garde noise experimentation of Londoner Luke Younger, who as well as performing and recording as Helm runs the always-excellent Alter label, tended to lead journos (including myself) down the rather lazy path of exploring the man’s supposed psychogeographic leanings. It’s not that one can’t find hidden maps to London’s reverse nestled between the drones and clanks of records like 2011’s Cryptography or his masterful PAN debut Impossible Symmetry, it’s just not really the most interesting way to approach Younger’s work, which is infinitely more intricate and multi-layered.

Still, there were certainly echoes of East London, as envisioned through the prism of post-Throbbing Gristle noise and industrial, on Impossible Symmetry, which occasionally read like the dark underbelly to even dubstep’s withdrawn embrace of the UK capital’s vibrant club scene. Not so much wistful come down on the night bus after a few manic hours in Plastic People, as painful come around in a dark alleyway somewhere near the DLR railway lines with a bloody nose, no wallet and the sound of crumbling machinery and passing traffic vibrating your skull. The power of the album was the way it drew listeners into this nightmarish vista, projecting Helm’s haunted, distorted inner world into a shared, surreal London. Above all, however, both Impossible Symmetry and Cryptography displayed Younger’s knack for repurposing musical and non-musical sounds into complex combinations of rhythm and texture, finely negotiating the lines between noise’ raw power and its uneasy relationship with art house music. Olympic Mess actually sees Helm take a step further out of the real and into the introspective than ever before, with arguably the most personal – and best – results of his career.

The album is the result of Younger’s ever-shifting listening habits, as well as spending a large part of the last year on the road in Europe with Danish punks Iceage, and much of the album seems to explore the strains and pressures such a busy period might place on a person’s interpersonal relationships and his or her own psyche. Track titles like ‘I Exist In A Fog’ or ‘Outerzone 2015’ hint at isolation and withdrawal, reflected in Helm’s music via deconstructed found sounds and samples that are then moulded into dense tapestries of industrial electronics and fractured ambient. Younger’s interest in balearic disco and dub techno manifest themselves in some of the most rhythmic material in the Helm canon, and although nothing on Olympic Mess could be called dance music, these ten tracks are in perpetual motion, from the bubbling synths and clattering noises on opener ‘Don’t Lick The Jacket’ through to the muted heavy bass pulsations that swirl through the ether on the second version of ‘Sky Wax’ that concludes the album.

In between, ‘I Exist In A Fog’ starts its half-life as a beat-based opus, looped drum kicks and oscillators revolving around one another over a grim tapestry of industrial murk peppered with unsettling sound effects. With his trademark dexterity (I sometimes see Younger as much as a producer in the electronic tradition as I do a noise musician), the piece proceeds through an almost epic evolution, the crushing post-techno grind giving way to nocturnal ambience that in turns builds into an opaque wall of futuristic ambience, complete with ruptured, inaudible vocals. ‘Fluid Cloak’ pursues the latter half of ‘I Exist In A Fog”s subdued atmospherics, drawing as much from the ambient styles of Eno and mid-nineties Coil as it does from noise predecessors such Throbbing Gristle or SPK. Both tracks are almost romantic in scope, revealing a take on noise that strips away the genre’s inherent machismo to lay bare the fragile humanity underneath. Even more than Impossible Symmetry, Olympic Mess is a nocturnal album, but it’s shades are more introverted and abstract: a night time of the soul rather than of the streets.

Even on the album’s most rhythmic track, the 12-minute centrepiece ‘Outerzone 2015’, driven by seesawing beats that evoke the motorik lurch of Neu! or Harmonia, feels at once as a part of the outside -or “real”- world, with its clubs playing balearic disco, its architecture and its multitudinous inhabitants, and curiously detached from it, a fever dream of dance music that morphs into drifting atmospherics, as if Helm is toying playfully with the very genres he says inspired him. Listening to Olympic Mess is to be transported not to London’s Olympic Village (now a park) with its flash modern stadia, vortex of roads and clusters of humanity, but into Younger’s own mind as he looks inwardly at his own musical limitations, and outwards at his surroundings, with the lines between the two fully obscured by clouds of nebulous textures, drones and ambient synths.

In moving away from the vestiges of full-on noise that defined his previous two albums, Luke Younger has paradoxically come up with a work that packs more punch than either. Even the album’s quietest moment, a spoken word piece called ‘Strawberry Chapstick’ on which a distorted, gender-ambiguous voice muses on music-making, life and addiction to lip balm, carries an eerie aura rich in potent interpretations that fold in and out between the boundaries of reality and imagination. Ironically, on an album where he seems to draw back from anything overtly demonstrative, Helm ultimately creates a work of profound and brooding honesty.

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