There’s a scene in Portals, a documentary about the cult Sacto math-rock band Hella, where the band members ditch their instruments one by one until the only person left on stage is drummer Zach Hill, violently toppling his drums until he is just riding his kick drum amidst a pile of overturned drum kit pieces and discarded guitars. In this sequence, the band perhaps prophesied their recent return to the core duo of Hill and guitarist Spencer Seim, the lineup that originally made them their name. Hella have built up quite a tall sonic edifice over the years, one that has not depended solely on the duo’s (admittedly considerable) own noise-making abilities for quite a long time. Dan Elkan added pigfuck vocals to “Republic of Rough and Ready” from Bitches Ain’t Shit but Good People all the way back in 2003. As members Carson, Aaron, and Josh fleshed out the band, along with Seim’s admirably devoted experimentation in Impulse-Tracker and chiptune programming, the band piled on ideas until there was not a new idea every moment, but always several ideas simultaneously. They perfected a glorious anarchic mass for a church gone wild. I actually loved the accretions of late Hella, their obsessive incursions into music that is still deeply un-punk rock for trying too hard, such as the histrionic prog styles that marked their last album, when they were a quintet. Alas, on their newest album, Tripper, Hella are back to the confoundingly melodic power duo of their earliest recordings, bringing a directness back to the songs that gives them a certain force that I didn’t know I missed.
Hella blew apart the math rock playbook by just being more technically blinding than almost any other band in their scene. Hill, especially, is noteworthy for his unique combination of virtuosity and self-effacement, which has made his drumming a fascinating listen over the years: to be blown away, to get covered in his sweat, to hear him adapt in dialogue with his collaborators in countless side projects, and, finally, to begin to hear through the drum fills.
Seeing as Hill’s development has been so unmistakable, it is interesting that what sets this album apart from the group’s earlier works as a duo is the change in Seim’s guitar style. For this review I subjected Tripper and their first album to the Pepsi challenge, comparing the return-to-form to the form. What stood out is how the dynamic interest of the group is balancing out between the guitar and the drums. On the duo’s first two albums, the melody and hook of the song were carried by the drums more than the guitar, swerving all over the place as Hill’s drums took hairpin turns and broke out into snare arias. Now that Hella are back to a duo, I can hear how Seim’s playing has become more dominant, has taken on more tones and voices than on their debut, when it was a finger-tapping arcade controller. On this album, Seim relies much less on his signature technique: “Yubacore” features a soaring, crystalline lead, and “Netgear” keeps to a stately march, at least until it disintegrates into a stuttering, quantized blur. I hear more riffing and strumming on songs like “Long Hair” or “On the Record,” both first-rate noise-punk. At early Hella shows, these moments of groove, such as the bridge in “Been A Long Time Cousin” off their first album, though rare, were the moments when the crowd’s heads really began to bang. Likewise, the band’s explorations and departures from an initial theme in “Furthest” call to mind Hella’s early work, and “Kid Life Crisis” and “Psycho Bro” swoop, twist, and flail like their most overstuffed and hyperactive full-band material.
The fact that Hella are able to deliver the same thrills, same complexity, and same unopenable exploding package with two members that they do with five is both musically impressive and cognitively relevant to the experience of the music. With music like this, you hear virtuosity, which is often thought of as an extra-musical, performance-bound phenomenon, as an almost sonic quality. From virtuosos like Seim and Hill we can learn that you listen not just with your ears but with your expectations: it is different to hear a single person play a piece by Franz Liszt than two sets of hands sitting side by side, even if the notes are exactly the same, because part of what you’re hearing is the virtuosity of the performer. Listening to Hella, aware that two musicians are doing this live, we are perhaps living through a post-Romantic, post-punk rehabilitation of the virtuoso. YouTube has allowed shredders of all stripes to find a highly appreciative and critical audience in their comments sections. These virtuosos, whether finger-drummers or finger-tutters, are not so much self-taught as taught by one another, by headless, slowed-down close-ups of their fingers. There is no shortage of t-shirt-clad virtuosos online, but in the age of the social network, what makes Hella different from the hoards of bedroom virtuosos is a very different kind of sociability: their ever-expanding network of collaborators, including departed members of Hella, who continue to play with Hill and Seim in different projects, and the deep sympathy between these two gifted musicians, obvious on this album, that goes way deeper than the “Like” button.