When you’re young, when you’re restless to expend the energy bristling inside your post-pubescent body, and have the effects of this expenditure reflected tangibly back at you, the objects constituting the world can seem like A Constant Sea, that is, can all present themselves indistinguishably as little more than points of reference or mediation for your own overflowing fervor and exuberance. Conversely, when you’re young, when your post-pubescent body is saturated by the angst, frustration, and insecurity that inevitably arises from not being able to exhibit its vitality, or simply from a lack of such vitality, the objects constituting the world can seem like A Constant Sea, that is, can all present themselves indistinguishably as little more than reminders of your own deflation and frailty. This — for want of a more interesting preamble — is why it’s doubly helpful that Heliotropes have settled on the name they have for their debut, since it’s an album mired both in the unbounded excitability of immaturity and in its confusion and uncertainty. Through the miscegenation of brash stoner rock, urban psychedelia, and girl-on-girl harmonies, and through lyrics that assign the directionless bewilderment of the twenty-something who has yet to find a welcoming niche, it beats with the fuzz-laden, hurried sense that the world, for better and for worse, is an undifferentiated clutter of ego-reflecting objects, and that unsurprisingly the best way to deal with this is to form a band and induce amnesia via a train of stubborn, hairy riffs.
And these riffs punch at you with bullish insistence. “Early in the Morning” flings itself into a pugnacious groove that, despite its two-note simplicity, drags lead vocalist Jessica Numsuwankijkul (no, I’m not drunk) by the collar as she harps, “Early in the morning/ I crossed the line/ Gray comes rushing/ Through the sky.” Gray is focal here, for in the Heliotropic world, nothing is clearly or unambiguously defined, even if their music generally moves with a concerted and methodical punchiness. References abound throughout the album to darkness, to being immersed in darkness, and to not really having a clue as to where you are or where you’re headed. In “Moonlite,” over driven acoustic strumming that eventually plumbs into frazzled riffage, Numsuwankijkul confesses, “You may be mine/ But I’ll keep my eye on you/ Until the light returns.” Similarly, in the misted bridge of “The Dove,” she breezes, “You don’t even have to know the way/ Through the darkness and silence reigns,” while the track percolates towards both a final repetition of its swaggered hook and a screeching guitar solo that metastasizes to fill the airspace. Some might find that this recurring motif of gloom and obscurity gets a little overplayed, even though it’s never the central theme of any one song, and some might be deterred further still by the fact that it stands in marked — and perhaps indiscriminate — contrast to the uncomplicated and often predictable structure of the album’s 12 compositions, which, regardless of the occasional luster provided by some FX-filtered trickery, generally adheres to the same stoner/psych/grunge verse-riff-verse-riff-bridge-riff template.
Yet if Heliotropes cling so adamantly to this well-worn model, it’s probably because they know what it can deliver. A piece like “Ribbons” has its force in quiet-loud dynamics, which see the band flit between the seamy loitering of Nya Abudu’s bass and the overdriven doggedness of Numsuwankijkul’s Jaguar, before a deftly-placed lull instigates the track’s breathless charge to its climax. In contrast to these exchanges in volume, “Joy Unfolds” imposes itself via disjunctions in tempo, with the initial weighty stagger kicking into an abrasively sinuous rush that’s heightened by some choice banshee wailing. Speaking of wailing, it will probably be the LP’s vocals that will save it from being lost in A Constant Sea of similar Superfuzz Bigmuff bands, since aside from the robust femininity of Numsuwankijkul’s mezzo-soprano, Heliotropes also benefit from the cooing help of drummer Cici Harrison, who in concert with her bandleader adds dimensions of lightness and tension to the agitated lurching of the band’s attack. To take only one example, on “Good and Evil” she superimposes herself as a droned backing that craftily anticipates the song’s roused and scuzzy chorus, which in its own perverse way is almost parallel to how the Wilson brothers might’ve heralded the sugary tract of Mike Love. But once again, mention of this particular track raises the niggling disparity that a stickler could draw between the album’s lyrical and musical content, since halfway through the number Numsuwankijkul simultaneously complains and boasts, “Don’t want to be in black and white/ Don’t want to be in light and dark/ Don’t believe in good and evil, anyway.” Now these lines may indeed slot neatly into the themes of youthful doubt, ambivalence, and indirection that run through the entire album, yet nevertheless they can rankle, since in effectively embodying an admission or intimation of nihilism, they come across as slightly hollow in the context of a sound and a style that really couldn’t be more of an affirmation of preexisting conventions and prescriptions. Surely, if you’re going to repudiate the claim that there are certain norms and guidelines that generally lead to happiness or well-being or whatever, then your music should be as anarchic as fuck, not as tightly disciplined as a Soviet librarian.
This simile is a little too harsh, however, since even though A Constant Sea is arguably somewhat conservative in its regurgitation of established tropes and forms, the execution of its inherited framework predominantly unfurls with confidence and clout. It’s not a surprising record (aside from album closer “Caroline” and its “Unchained Melody”-esque sentimentality), it’s not a particularly challenging record, and its subject matter of disorientation and aimless agnosticism doesn’t always integrate with the decisiveness and stylistic piety of its amped exercises. Yet if anyone’s after some temporary respite from a diet of music that could be regarded as too “cerebral” or “conceptual,” or from a life that’s too monotonous in its baffling complexity, then they might do well to join Heliotropes for a dip in their muddy/clear waters.