My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #11 Hilly Eye’s “Reasons to Live”
I’m neither a big fan of punk nor of music that is inherently deconstructive, as I tend to find punk too simple and deconstructive music too complex for its own sake. And I must say I don’t like adding these caveats to any review I’m doing because it adds a certain wind-up to whatever I am saying, as if my saying I like something that I wouldn’t normally like makes it better than the usual fare from that particular genre, which simply isn’t the case. I bring this up for this review now to add any purposeless weight to my ideas about the music, but rather, to say how interesting I find the way in which Hilly Eye uses these two elements. Punk itself is a rather deconstructive act, using disparate musical elements as and stripped down musical values as a way to create a landscape of aggression towards the convoluted ideology behind modern music. However, when the act of punk rock is broken down on Reasons to Live, the result is a surprisingly chaotic mix of sparse atonality, that which is not immediately apparent in the way it is musical, but at the same time, catching the energy of punk to create a more atmospheric and haunting touch. This is perhaps the thing that struck me most noticeably about Reasons to Live, just how sparse the whole album really feels when listened to end to end. It rarely feels as if the vocals and music are interconnected in a strong way, as the two piece group seems intent to create weird moments of non-musical passages that merge with the purely musical and simply use the vocals as a linking element that rarely feels like the main source of melody. This is interesting, as the presence of the punk aesthetic primarily means that the sound of the guitars and drums isn’t especially technical, resulting in an oddly non-focused approach to the way they’re delivered, playing rather loose and rarely in sustained fashion, but this comes off as so inherently interesting to me, as the band manages to make all this aural chaos pull together and creates these wonderful peaked moments that feel purposeful without losing the grimy edge of the sound. “Jersey City” to me, is the prime example of this, as this song is based around a rather sparse guitar sound, barely audible within the mix, the drums playing in the far distance, marking a rather slow and relaxing opening that eventually swings wildly into feedback and white noise, as the guitar begins to blaze against the speakers. Singer Amy Klein marches in and out of beautiful chanting and simple shouting in a mocking tone about how we have “You think you’re so kind/ You’ve got an appetite/…for destruction,” seeming to match the peaks of the music without necessarily filling it’s pattern in anyway. This creates this massive separation between the parts being played, as the more focused but simpler musical parts don’t gel with the complex but non-musical vocals, as their matching tones do little to give the audience a sense of stability in the music. However, this works to give the audience a rather strong idea about the way these individual parts are being played, each part marking it’s own distinct idea within the song and making use of the inherent stillness as a way to make the audience more aware of the music’s proclivities. It ends up with a lot of energy through this, as the dissonance between the parts is never to great since their energy is linked, yet the atonality of their mixture makes them feel especially furious and moving without ever having to purely sacrifice tone.
The oddest part of this is just how atmospheric this all becomes. While austerity is usually a consequence of limited instrumentation and arrangement, Hilly Eye manages to feel rather chilly without ever sacrificing movement within its confines. Listening to this album reminds me of taking a walk on a cold winter’s morning, when the sky is grey overhead and there is just enough light to let you see your own breath in front of you. You want to get home as quick as you can, but you also kind of take in the beauty of the reality you’ve walked into. Much of what I link to this comes from Klein’s guitar work, which is still in the lo-fi vein, but has a wonderfully expressive tone to it, making it very clear when she is hitting certain notes and adding a great deal of separation between notes in a chord, allowing the audience to hear this very dreamy sound that comes from the lightly fuzzed sound ringing in the brighter register. It reminds me a great deal of certain tracks by Sonic Youth, how there’s this wonderfully blanketed sound that’s created by individual elements of the instrument coming together. As I’ve said before, Klein really isn’t playing anything wildly complex, yet it’s so compelling in sound, walking in and out of distortion and style at a moment’s notice to hang mood shifts over the audience like the sword of Damocles. The album marches in and out of tenseness, lightened immensely by just how utterly beautiful and distant Klein sounds when singing. Many moments when her vocals enter sound as if she is simply simging to herself, finding these very pure, breathy notes to work out, only for her to add a degree of fierceness to it as the verse continues on. Human voice is a powerful linking element, as since birth we’re trained to recognize the way emotion is portrayed in the way people talk, so hearing this on Reasons to Live is a remarkably bendable moment, as the rather overall hushed sound of the guitar must contend with Klein’s vocals becoming more or less excited, driving the impalpable grey in different directions. It all comes off as kind of shoegezey at times without ever really hitting it, as the guitar is restrained yet distinct enough to create patterns of sound that take of the mix and conjure simple emotions that Klein then directs as she pleases.
I have a feeling this is all going to sound like gobildigook to be honest, but Hilly Eye’s Reasons to Live was a jarring experience to me. It feels like a rather intelligent attempt to separate moments that are musical and moments that are not and bring them back together to create sounds that play on atmosphere and energy rather than formula. Many tracks on Reasons to Live sound wonderfully beautiful and calm, while others are furious and knife edged stomp alongs, nothing ever feeling like it’s coming totally together, but feeling so appropriate when in proximity.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Not really. Love the tones, just not much else about it.
Favorite Track: Amnesia