Irony is a pale, sullen bitch with bruises all over her legs and an ‘insert here’ tattoo above her bloated ass. You see, I wasn’t ready for Hella to expand so fast. After seeing them TEAR The Locust apart in concert three or four years ago, I rushed out to purchase their debut, which floored me for reasons — I was told — only a drummer could understand. My guitarist friends told me axeman Spencer Seim was out of tune and my non-musician buddies said I was entering dangerous territory they couldn’t in good conscience follow me to. But as usual, I persisted, and before I knew what the hella was happening, they were one of my favorite bands.
Then came the side projects, which I’m NOT going to name for the umpteenth time. Then came the ‘ambitious double-album.’ Then came MORE side projects and new Hella members. Confused but still determined to keep up, I reviewed my ass off and tried to get every magazine on the lord’s neon-green earth to let me do an interview/feature on the duo. Which brings us back to the irony of the whole situation: Now that Hella-to-the-yeah are closer to being a band the average person can love, I find myself at a crossroads. I mean, that’s why they hit me so hard; they sounded like no one else and fit a niche so fascinatingly narrow that people like me were helpless against it, dissecting and subsequently eating their idiosyncracies up like a deliciously flaky pot-pie crust.
Now they have a singer and a sodding bassist; the nerve! I haven’t been this nervous in anticipation of a record since Daughters’ Hell Songs. Even without having heard There’s No 666 in Outer Space, I recoiled, assuming that more of the unfettered indulgence of Church Gone Wild or The Smokers project — both interesting in their own way but not money — was at hand. After all, and as women will tell you, trying to shove a watermelon through a hole the size of a lemon is a painful exercise, and when I saw their four-member incarnation at SXSW they tried to shove a battle-bass, keyboard, and Dan Elkan’s vocal cords through that beeyatch. Thankfully Hella have surprised me, for the most part. There’s No 666 in Outer Space doesn’t sound forced, clogged, convoluted, crowded, or even far-fetched. For perhaps the first time since sophomore album The Devil Isn't Red, Zach Hill and his day-job posse are showing restraint.
Before the Timberlake crowd head out to purchase this disc, I should clarify: We’re still talking about a band whose chops and ambition overmatch about 90% of the population (not counting the critics who pretend to ‘get it’). Hella wonka-wonk more than Willy and skronk more than SY, rendering their work a novelty to most. But if you’re the type who finds beauty in the most unlikely of places (drum fills, bass slides, Van Halen guitar taps), There’s No 666 will challenge you as much as anything you’ve heard in the last year, in both good ways and bad. Most impressive is its ability to meld so many new elements to an old template without making the old guard yearn for the days of yore.
Sure, I’d rip the spleen out of a blind man just to hear a logical third piece to the Hold Your Horse Is / The Devil Isn’t Red wanna-be trilogy, but, my own personal preferences aside, 666 is as encouraging a record as one could expect from an all-new lineup. Songs like “The Ungratefull Dead,” “The Things People Do...” and “World Series” in particular flex the arranging muscle of a band that in the past has displayed little but industrial-strength solo brawn. This isn’t the work of a group painstakingly setting a foundation and sprinkling sugar on top at the last minute. New singer Aaron Ross doesn’t have the most immediately likeable voice on the underground landscape. Rob Crow he ain’t, but his high-register bleating doesn’t beg to be hated, either, nor do the serviceable lyrics. Most importantly, considering that vocals can only in effect be another instrument on a Hella record, his singing fits nicely into the rhythmic jigsaw so effortlessly plied by Hill, Seim, and fellow newcomer Carson McWhirter (bass), who mans his post with authority.
While part of me would prefer to hear There’s No 666 with no vocals at all, this is about the best the listening public could have expected from a band whose growing pains — and subsequent stretchmarks from expanding too quickly — have been much more obviously cloying in the past. The quartet jam eternal throughout each of the 11 tracks, with Hill’s mega-drumming finally adding new elements to its trad b-drum/tom/high-hat combo, including glorious cowbell on “World Series.” As expected, Seim’s guitar work is obscured somewhat by the auxiliary tootling, but my educated guess is that his skills as a composer — flaunted most prominently on Chirpin’ Hard — are no doubt responsible for the cohesive nature of the tunes. And with that, my expectations have been, if not dashed, proven inaccurate. Hella faithful couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable blast-off point.