The new album from The Heligoats, Back to The Ache, opens with ‘Good Morning’, simple but poignant lyrics and reverbed electric guitar spread out over wandering acoustic and piano chords. I can think of no better way to describe it than Indie Space Folk; its atmospheric waves of distortion, electro-birdcall synth noises and sparse piano accompaniment really defy a more specific or helpful definition.
Singer and guitarist Chris Otpeka, whose vocals really drive the album, has a distinctive style, and although his voice is a little thin, this is well compensated by not putting him too high in the mix, and highly effective use of vocal doubling . His lyrics, are on point throughout the album. Avoiding becoming too self-involved, the songs he writes are powerful yet restrained, coloured with interesting rhyme structures and phrasing. A big highlight is ‘Right Then And There’, which, despite being based on two repeated chords and lacking traditional verse-chorus structure, is kept engaging and energetic throughout its five-and-a-half-minute build-up entirely by the inventive vocal phrasing and wonderful lyrics.
Another highlight is drummer Nate Lanthrum. His playing is joyous, and when he really lets himself go, it has a tremendously positive impact on the music. The fact that he has played with Otpeka before in Troubled Hubble shows, as the two work together to produce a very full and appealing sound.
However, there are several songs in the body of the album which definitely let the record down. ‘Dark’, ‘All Joking Aside’ and to a certain extent ’26.2’, while not bad in themselves, really undermine the album due to their lack of imagination. While the rest of Back to the Ache is characterised by an odd energy and organic musical experimentation, they feel very conventional, very consciously indie-pop. They’re aiming for a very specific audience and seem to feel the need to add some of the melodies are just repetitive and make the songs sound like filler. But let me be clear: I imagine a lot of people will like them and the lyrics remain fantastic, but they feel like a change of heart, a step away from the bravely strange sound of the rest of the album.
Maybe I’m being cynical, but it seems like what could have been a fantastic release was let down by a few tracks whose aim was to sell the album rather than to make interesting music, downgrading Back to the Ache to just ‘good’. When it works, it really works, and The Heligoats’ songwriting skills stand out and produce some thoroughly engaging and entertaining music, but those few tracks sacrifice the overall musical bravery in exchange for a wider audience.