After releasing 2002’s Hold Your Horse Is, an album that shoved a hand grenade up the arse of math-rock and filled the void that the breakup of Don Caballero left behind, Sacramento duo Hella spent most of 2003 flexing their stylistic muscles by releasing two EPs that augmented their usual guitar/drums setup with varying degrees of success. The first EP Bitches Ain’t Shit But Good People had the funniest title of the year, but its explorations of unstructured noise left me quite cold. It didn’t bode well that its best song was merely a reprise of a Hold Your Horse Is song with whiny vocals added. The second EP Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, on which guitarist Spencer Seim trading his main instrument for a variety of synthesizers and DSP gadgets, fared much better. This trade unexpectedly resulted in Hella’s most tuneful and accessible work to date, but it still didn’t rock quite as hard as their debut album did.
Judging from their excellent sophomore album The Devil Isn’t Red, Seim and his drumming cohort Zach Hill obviously learned a couple of useful lessons from these EPs. This album finds Hella retreating back to the comfortable territory of their debut album, yet taking the best ideas of their 2003 material with them. Two songs are remakes of Total Bugs Bunny songs. “Brown Metal 2002” begins with what sounds like Spencer playing a video game while Zach beats on pots and pans with the same intensity that he would a proper kit, but the song abruptly segues into a full-on white noise blowout. “You DJ Parents” is a brief and dinky synthesizer-only remake of “You DJ Children.” Another track, “Except No Subs,” is ninety seconds of shoegaze-meets-IDM heaven, with heavily reverberating piano and gorgeous chimes layered on top of a head-nodding break-beat. The rest of the album, though, is just Spencer and Zach plowing through three-minute collages of riffs, stitched together with the same logic that Carl Stalling would employ to score a Looney Tunes cartoon, and played faster than a Mahavishnu Orchestra vinyl side on 45 instead of 33.
The Devil Isn’t Red boasts slightly dirtier production than the first album; Zach’s kit is recorded pristinely, especially when listening on a good set of headphones, but Spencer’s guitar occasionally sounds like it’s half a room away (though you can still make out what he’s playing). Those of you who read my review of the Nervous Cop album know that Zach Hill is one of my Personal Drum Gods, so I don’t need to tell you that this man’s playing makes Damon Che sound like Meg White in comparison. Zach plays behind, around, and ahead of the beat so much that you’re afraid he’ll NEVER get back on the one, but he always find a way to get back in sync with the music, even if it means that he has to hit the drums three thousand times faster to make his fills fit.
However, Mister Seim must receive his props as well. He more than compensates for Hella’s lack of bass through using every trick he knows to flesh out the chord progressions with little catchy melodies. Alternate tunings, elaborate finger-tapping, bluesy string bends, and pinging harmonics are employed on almost every song, not as a means of showing off, but simply to ensure that the melodic components of the songs are just as complex and interesting as the rhythmic components. BOTH members of Hella can play the hell out of their instruments, but they have a synergy that makes the concept of “soloing” in their music almost obsolete.
At one moment, a barely audible trumpet enters the mix on album highlight “Suistyle,” pushing the music a few inches closer to a collective improvisation dynamic more often found in free jazz. As tight a ship as Spencer and Zach run, there’s always the possibility that the music can fly apart at the seams at any given moment, and though it never does, this tension keeps Hella’s music from sounding sterile or stale. Math-rock is becoming a crowded field (in a way, it’s nice to know that indie-rockers are finally learning how to play their instruments), but with The Devil Isn’t Red Hella manages to stay a couple steps ahead of the pack.