When I was younger, I used to escape frustrations surrounding relationships by writing angry poetry. Most of the time, my brain was so scrambled I used imagery only I understood.
The music of Portland ambient-rock outfit The Helio Sequence, which will play the Tower on Feb. 6, takes much the same route. Rather than tell plain-Jane stories from start to finish on their fifth studio album, Negotiations, they take on big ideas like loss, discontentment and inner turmoil through some fairly obscure imagery.
If you thought of their music like architecture, you'd see long hallways, dark warehouses, and lonely cottages. Tracks on Negotiations are ripe with intimate brain chatter. According to lead singer Brandon Summers, even the title of the album is about the mental table tennis we play in our own minds. Lyrics are vague and set among tinny guitar and haunting vocals. It is ethereal lo-fi rock that leads listeners to universal themes—an orgy of melancholy emotion.
The problem with creating esoteric music is that sometimes, the task of coming up with the actual meaning of a song can be daunting, even for the person who made it. Often, during interviews, artists deliver inane descriptions about a song that trail off into near total nonsense.
But that's not the case with Summers. He knows the meaning behind his pieces and once explained that they take on powerful depth. Take, for instance, the album's sixth track, "Harvester of Souls."
"I was working on a different song, and I was getting discouraged trying to iron out lyrics," recalled Summers during an interview with the Source. "I had my acoustic [guitar] there and picked it up. I started singing and it just kind of came out. I had gone on a trip to the beach and it was winter and really gray. There was this distinct moment where I was walking around the bay and I was thinking about my stepfather. He was a trucker and had died in an accident. And when I sang "Harvester" that's what was coming out. It's a super-personal thing and I was reluctant to put it on the record because it was so raw."
Raw is right. In fact it's nearly impossible to hear his story and not have your nostrils immediately fill with the scent of cold salty air and feel a chill in your bones. That's the kind of insight that can transform a song from something conveying only feeling into one with real purpose.
While other artists opt out of getting specific with explanations, Summers' candor is gratifying. It provides a distinct basis for connection. Allowing all of us to more fully benefit from the music. Not just the people who made it.
The Helio Sequence with Talkdemonic and All You All
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6
The Tower Theatre
835 NW Wall St.
Tickets $17 at www.towertheatre.org