Review: Black Helium ‘Um’

Back again on Riot Season, Black Helium assault our senses with another lurid slab of burned-out psych. Making a play for album-title-of-the-year, Um offers a similar mix of approaches as 2020’s The Wholly Other, although with perhaps a bit less of the overtly heavy dooming they let rip with on that record’s One Way Trip. There’s a certain structural similarity also, opening with a couple of catchy numbers, then setting off into stranger territory before jamming towards a warm bath and a smoke to calm down.

Black Helium 'Um'

Um comes on with the patient beginnings of Another Heaven, pulling ambiguously in various directions as they build towards an anthem for damaged seekers. The momentum builds through robot-rock eccentricities and danceable jangly rhythms shaking tambourines. Drawing on the classicism of washed-out vocals, they turn our wide eyes towards the dark, in a fine tradition of ‘uncomfortable trip’ music. Why do we dig it? Both the music and the experience that is? The worm in the bud, and the sinister just out of sight, the shadow behind the door…

Black Helium are prone to lapses of grandiose expanse, drawing from the sheen of a Snail or Monster Magnet epic, or the desert’s fuzz and groove, stepping back into half-speed riffing and a wave of synth but through all this, the impulse to go way way out is still evident. All bright and perky, I Saw God builds on the anxiety that can follow the vision, happy to be an apparently simple song, but insidious in its hooks while barely holding together the nervous energy in the spaces between. As with the first two songs of The Wholly Other, I can tell that I’m going to be walking around with bits of this in my head for a good while.

And indeed, from here ‘way out’ is where we are heading, into the nugget of strangeness that is Dungeon Head. Idiosyncratic instrumentation meets cavernous percussion and delicate vocals in what could be a Masters Of Reality jam room take, signalling the shift to more free-wheeling material over the second half of the album.

Idiosyncratic instrumentation meets cavernous percussion and delicate vocals in what could be a Masters Of Reality jam room take…

I’m not sure whether Summer Of Hair is supposed to conjure a sideways nostalgia for some psychedelic heyday or an appalling Fortean meteorological event, but it shows Black Helium in hypnotic-propulsive mode, kosmische chunter emphasising the trance dance aspect as synth pads push to the fore. Melodic elements drift across the space but – as underscored by the wonderfully silly video – this is a celebration of simplicity.

Another blast of madcap discord gives way to classic rock jamming and announces that we have reached the long and meandering closer The Keys To Red Skeleton’s House (Open The Door). This fifteen minuter covers a lot of ground, and to me feels a bit aimless at times, but perhaps this is a sign of how comfortable with itself the song is, beholden to no other force than what feels right. Somewhere along that journey, we settle into the sub-titular refrain of ‘I open the door’ which is where Black Helium kick back, with enough grounding to swing into a last boogie, before setting us gently back down to earth.

While I’ve written about the darkness that such music nods towards, the overall feel of Um is celebratory, not too serious and full of a sense of fun and freedom. It’s a generous album in that respect, the band sharing with us the joy of its creation and giving permission to just have a good time. Sometimes I feel like my record shelf is a bit light on albums like that, and I certainly have space for this alongside the last one, even if I do need sunglasses to look at the cover.

Label: Riot Season
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram

Scribed by: Harry Holmes