“Good morning, my sweet, how d’you sleep, how d’you get here?” So opens the new album from The Heligoats, Back to The Ache. With simple but poignant lyrics and reverbed electric guitar spread out over wandering acoustic and piano chords, it’s a hell of start. Fairly reminiscent of The Villagers in vocal style and its acoustic base, I can think of no better way to describe it than Indie Space Folk. Its atmospheric, distant 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 pretty distinctive style, sounding a bit like Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists fame) crossed with Thom Yorke (come on, you know who Thom Yorke is). Although his voice is a little thin and he lacks range, this is well compensated by not putting him too high in the mix, and highly effective use of vocal doubling on tracks such as ‘Drai Zich’ and ‘2.62’. His lyrics, on the other hand, are on point throughout the album. Avoiding florid imagery and becoming too self-involved, the songs he writes are down-to-earth and powerful in a very restrained way, coloured with interesting rhyme structures and phrasing. A big highlight is ‘Right Then And There’, which, despite being based on two repeated chords on guitar and piano 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. The one place in which these vocals slightly falter is ‘Arizona, Baby’, whose energy is not quite supported by Otpeka’s style.
However, there are several songs in the body of the album which definitely let the record down as a whole. ‘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. Even the first single, ‘Tofutti’, was clearly released ahead of the album because of its accessibility. Unfortunately, this just makes them a little dull in comparison with the rest of the album; they’re aiming for a very specific audience and seem to feel the need to add some lead lines, like the electric guitar in ‘Dark’ and synth in ‘All Joking Aside’ which are just repetitive and make the songs sound like filler. But let me be clear: they’re not awful, 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.
One thing the stood out as making those tracks seem a bit dull was the very ordinary drumming. In fact, the energy and tone of the whole album depends very much on the kit; for the most part, drummer Nate Lanthrum’s playing is joyous and open, and when he really lets himself go, it has a tremendously positive impact on the sound. 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, especially in the tracks ‘Drai Zich’, ‘Suplhur, Baby’ and the aforementioned ‘Right Then and There’.
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 just falter a little bit and sacrifice the overall musical bravery in exchange for a wider audience.
A shorter version of this review is also published on oxfordstudent.com