We love watching artists develop, and even more, we love watching them succeed. When Spring Break Tapes released Strange Creations in 2012, we were impressed with Ali Helnwein‘s mainstream notoriety (an Emmy and credit on a Grammy!) But since Helnwein’s release of Voyage earlier this year, we’ve grown convinced that the composer’s best years are still ahead of him.
Strange Creations is now available again, this time on vinyl, backed by a second side of recent orchestral material. A couple of the tracks are missing (“East of Eden” and “Gabrielli”), and the track order has been rearranged, but the album flows better as a result. (It’s rewarding to note that we mentioned neither absent track in our initial review.) Before we get to the new material, let’s revisit our initial words, also edited:
Ali Helnwein‘s strangeness is more that of a Danny Burton than an all-out oddity; the cassette is accessible, but creative and playful. Opener “Greed” is an early highlight, a Christmas-like combination of piano, glockenspiel and strings. The ivories sound as if they were recorded to vinyl, then played back, providing a gritty contrast. “Faking It” adds handclaps and a Spanish feel. The handclaps reappear on the 55-second “Insect”, which pastes the tone of “Greed” onto a Pachelbel base – an approach that finds its fruition in the processional pace of “Gluttony”. But the strangest creation here is the bird, banjo-and-boot stomped “Whistling Past the Graveyard”, which alone justifies the EP’s title. A full album of such creations would be extremely welcome, but for now, this cassette is a lovely entry into Helnwein’s world.
And now, three years later, we get our wish! As we’ve grown used to Helnwein’s unique approach, his sounds have grown less strange; the words that come to mind are original and bright-toned. Unlike others working in Hollywood, Helnwein doesn’t follow a formula, but an invisible muse. The 13-minute “Casablanca Quartet” (Side B of the vinyl) is proof. On the heels of Voyage, this is the third extended piece Helnwein has released in 2015, a sign that the tiny sparrows of Side A may have migrated.
In the opening seconds, the quartet warms up, nearly veering into the atonal range, an indication that anything can happen. Stretching the notes to filigree thickness, Helnwein’s quartet builds an extremely rickety bridge for the heavy cello to cross, yet cross it does, tentative at first, then resolute. As the cello gains its footing, the rest of the quartet relaxes, launching into an accessible segment in the third minute, a celebration of safety. But even here, the notes express a desire to wander, reeled in by the composer’s strength of will. New ideas are introduced movement by movement, the sweet and soaring balanced by the serious and grounded. A pensive mid-section paves the way for a slow descent into silence: the antithesis of “Greed”, and a satisfying conclusion to this fine LP. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 9 October