Review: Helen Money – “Atomic”

The Chicago-based cellist Alison Chesley is accustomed to providing the sonic equivalent of accent marks and highlights on other people’s statements of intent. She has appeared on some 150 LPs, offering the bowed weep and illuminating scope of her instrument to the likes of Anthrax, Russian Circles, Bob Mould, MONO, and many more. But, when operating under the moniker Helen Money, Chesley has taken a more prominent and, frankly, forward-thinking stance, using emotive compositions to blend the humble nuances of post-classical with the vitriol and venom of metal and post-hardcore. A song like Helen Money’s “Become Zero”, from the 2016 album of the same name, is emblematic of the approach, with Chesley sawing on her cello amidst roars of distortion and pummeling percussion. It is the cello at its most visceral and, arguably, human: powerful yet somehow flawed, less than pristine, the instrument – once as proper as a princess – stripped of its concert hall connotations.

Chesley has taken a little bit of a new tact with Atomic, the Helen Money LP out recently via Thrill Jockey Records. There is a connective tissue among the record’s 11 tracks, but it’s stretched over raw bone and little else. Or so it seems. The compositions give the impression of sparseness, of vulnerability, often belying the careful constructions and conceits at work within. And, yes, while there is a wonderful kind of shuddering nakedness to it all, Chesley also writes her theses large, digging in the soil for deeper truths about connection – both of the human and musical variety.

For a record centered on the cello, there’s an impressive array of tonal variety. Listeners get the hollowed and morose (the ambiance-backed plucking of “One Year One Ring”), but also the driving (“Marrow” is one of the few songs on this outing with conventional percussion). At times, one hears artifacts of the chamber room (the harp makes a delectable appearance on the hypnotizing, vaguely Eastern “Coppe”). But Atomic also isn’t an exercise in flashiness or a kind of stage-show of technical proficiency. A song like “Coil”, with molasses-thick lines that dance between grunge and metal, or the propulsive “Marrow” are as indicative of the record’s themes as the riveting but heavily sedated “Understory”, which centers on a devastating and gauzy little piano motif. And all three, while impressively played, are enthralling for their content more than the instruments they utilize to spread their message.

Then, just three songs in, there’s “Nemesis”. It might not be the record’s best track — I go back and forth on the verdict. But it is the one which I find myself darting toward when I feel the ache to return to the heart of the record. Here, Chesley again uses a repeating piano motif as a kind of foundation on which to build; her aching cello swoons appropriately as the track’s real star. But what interests me about the piece is its structure. Chesley doesn’t spend much time on any particular passage in the roughly six-minute-long composition, but careful listeners will spot her returning to themes and almost cyclical constructions. A raging bolt of electricity halfway through the proceedings references the electronic ambient buzz that preceded it three minutes earlier, and, in the tune’s closing moments, it becomes almost a reprise of itself, returning to the swoon and hinting at themes universal – both literally and figuratively.

Moments on the LP are surely stage-setting; the track “Something Holy” is largely an ambient interlude. But there are almost no moments not used to their best potential. Chesley tips her hard in the record’s masterful sequencing, letting us in on the fact that there’s clear intentionality, almost a rite of passage if you will, between the stagy sing-song that accents opener “Midnight” and the morose requia of closer “Many Arms”. It might not be a song cycle, per se, but the connective tissue that holds together Atomic makes it a life-journey and something that feels comforting when traveled from beginning to end.

Chesley, for all her guest appearances, likely would crack a smile at the suggestion that a closer reading of this authorial interconnectedness might lend the record its apropos title. We all are nothing more than easily manipulated particles, a combination of dust and space moved by the art that reveals this truth to us. It’s a haunting thought — and an interesting conceit for a record. I’d make it myself, but Chesley, after all, got there first. – Justin Vellucci, PopMatters, April 6, 2020

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