Hello Death’s graceful gloom mirrors today’s angst
Now feels like a particularly bleak moment in human history — although, in truth, things always have been bad. Tragedy always has been just around the corner.
Though darkness is ever-present, it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. That’s what Hello Death conveys to us with its hauntingly beautiful music.
The band combines elements of folk, rock, choral and baroque music. Its sound is not dissimilar to heavy metal, as menace lies just beneath Hello Death’s elegant, ornate surface.
Though the Milwaukee band’s new record, For Those With Many Hearts, was recorded several years ago, it speaks to the darkness of this time.
ONE BAND EMERGES FROM ANOTHER
Hello Death emerged out of the nowdefunct Group of the Altos, which featured 16 members at its peak.
Not only were Hello Death’s four members in Altos, but the first song on the first Hello Death album was conceived as a song within an Altos song.
“The plan was that Altos was going to play a song and Marielle (Allschwang) and I would start playing another song that she wrote underneath it,” recalls Nathaniel Heuer.
“Then we would bring up the volume so they would be playing simultaneously, and then that song would drop back out, almost like somebody turned up the radio in the background.”
Altos tried to flesh out the idea, but never performed it live. Instead, Allschwang and Heuer, along with Erin Wolf and Shawn Stephany, turned it into “Settlers,” the opening howl on Hello Death’s 2013 selftitled debut. Even the quartet’s name comes from Altos, which was once called “Hello Death, Goodbye Killers.”
But Hello Death is much more than a side project. It is the brainchild of bassist and vocalist Nathaniel Heuer, who began working on some of the base material before moving to Milwaukee and joining Altos.
HELMED BY HEUER
Nathaniel Heuer is a Minneapolis native. It was in the Twin Cities that he developed an affinity for heavy metal and jazz. It’s also where Heuer had his initial meeting with death. When Heuer was 14, the drummer in his first band died in a house fire.
“I feel like I had a moment of clarity when that happened. I realized that nobody is special in regards to that,” says Heuer.
Heuer continued to play music through high school, but quit after graduation. He dropped out of college twice, eventually becoming a bartender in Chicago. After a few years, Heuer grew tired of the nightlife and traveled to rural New Jersey to learn carpentry. Upon his return to Chicago, he began playing music again.
Shawn Stephany met Heuer at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. A native of Dubuque, Iowa, Stephany moved to Milwaukee to attend art school. He was one of the original members of Group of the Altos.
In 2009, Heuer approached Stephany, Allschwang and Wolf about collaborating on a project outside of Altos. Heuer had specific instrumentation in mind, which included piano and string arrangements.
“I was really excited about it,” recalls Stephany, who plays guitar and lap steel. “I had heard some of the stuff he’d been working on and I liked the mood of it.”
The quartet began playing in Heuer’s living room and spent a year learning to play together.
“I liked Nathaniel’s writing style — it was a little quirky,” says Wolf, who grew up in the Milwaukee area and sang in choir during college. Wolf sings and plays piano and keyboard in Hello Death.
In addition to playing with Hello Death, Milwaukee native Marielle Allschwang fronts her own band and is the most recent member to join Collections of Colonies of Bees. In Hello Death, Allschwang plays violin, guitar and sings.
“Playing with Hello Death is really cool because it’s a chance to feel music in a different way and it allows me to spend more time being an instrumentalist,” says Allschwang.
COLLABORATIVE SONG WRITING AND RECORDING
“I usually write the chord changes and the melody, but I don’t write too much,” Heuer says of the band’s songwriting process.
“I might only write diatonic chord voicings, so I’m just playing the root and whatever I want to stress. Then I let the band fill it in. You get way more interesting things happening that way,” adds Heuer.
“There’s a lot of experimentation that occurs when we’re writing songs,” says Stephany. “I still make variations every time we practice, which I may or may not use.”
Hello Death’s 2013 debut was recorded at April Base Studios in Fall Creek, the home studio of Bon Iver. In 2015, Hello Death released Remnants, a collection of songs recorded during the same sessions.
One month before releasing Remnants, the band recorded the songs that would become For Those With Many Hearts. Those sessions occurred at a friend’s barn in Cedarburg called Speckled Chemistry. Engineer Jamie Hansen worked with the band on both recordings.
“Jamie was the common thread,” Stephany says. “April Base was an immersive kind of thing. You’re sleeping there, you’re eating there, you’re doing everything there, so recording can happen all the time.”
DREAD, DEATH, DOOM — AND HOPE
While For Those With Many Hearts has endured an usually long gestation period, fans of Hello Death’s gorgeously grisly sound will find it worth the wait.
The interplay between Heuer’s deep baritone, Allschwang’s airy alto and Wolf’s mezzo soprano is riveting. It’s like the grim reaper speaking to a pair of angels, though the female vocals have their own sinister edge.
The first thing you hear is a tape click, then heavy bass strokes, as if Heuer is wielding a sword. In the middle of the first song — “Talk” — a steady drum beat kicks in. Throughout the record, percussion acts as a cooling mechanism to the otherwise molten layers of sound.
The lyrics on the new record grapple with familiar subjects — dread, death and doom. The album’s first single — “Tin House” — was released the day Donald Trump took office. It stands as one of the great protest songs of the Trump era.
Yet the album is not all anguish and despair. The narrator in these songs seems to have found a sense of peace, an anchor amid the misery. For Heuer, that anchor is his wife and two young daughters.
“I do maintain a hopefulness,” Heuer says. “Seeing my daughters and how they deal with things, like their thoughts and fears. I try to stay acutely aware of the fragility of life, and having children is the most insane reminder of that.”
Despite the eternal qualities of For Those With Many Hearts, it is a record rooted in a time and place. This is most apparent on “The Willow Trees,” a minutelong hymn sung amid a torrential downpour. This song, and the record as a whole, urge us to embrace the moment and to make something of it, whether the sun is shining or the sky is falling.