Hello Death’s grace­ful gloom mir­rors to­day’s angst

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Joey Gri­halva Con­tribut­ing writer

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.

PHOTO: KELLY BOLTER

Hello Death.

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