Let’s start with the important stuff: what or who is a Helichrysum? I love Wikipedia, and that informs me that Helichrysum is a genus of plant in the sunflower family, but before you get too excited: it’s been used as a wastebucket taxon in the past. Tut tut. We’ll just have to satisfy ourselves with knowing that ‘their leaves are oblong to lanceolate. They are flat and pubescent on both sides. The bristles of the pappus are scabrous, barbellate, or plumose.’ Nothing screams rawk like a scabrous pappus bristle, eh?
I don’t usually have any prior knowledge of the bands I review, so I’m going to bask in the unfamiliar delights of being at least semi-informed here. Hippie Death Cult are based in Portland, Oregon and released their debut album 111 on the now sadly defunct Cursed Tongue Records back in 2019. Like most of the records the Danish label put out, it was an absolute corker – a heady mix of stoner-doom, psychedelia and angsty, old-school grunge. I was, rather typically, late to the party and listened to it non-stop throughout the weird lockdown summer of 2020.
I clearly wasn’t the only person who loved that record, as Hippie Death Cult signed to scene juggernaut Heavy Psych Sounds for their second album Circle Of Days which came out in 2021. For some reason, I didn’t enjoy that album nearly so much, but I can attest that the tunes really worked in a live setting as they had the decency to play close-ish to Basingstoke last year. Anyway, after the release of Circle Of Days, they underwent a significant line-up change with singer Ben Jackson leaving and bassist Laura Phillips taking over vocal duties. Upheavals didn’t end there as, at some point following their European tour, drummer Ryan Moore left and was replaced by Harry Silvers.
Now, I’ll admit to experiencing some trepidation about them continuing as a trio and with such a changed line-up. Thankfully, I can report that was unfounded as Helichrysum is a storming return to form. Laura Phillips has an excellent, powerful voice that fits the music perfectly. Heck, across the album some of her phrasing even reminded me of Jackon’s. I know essentially nothing about drumming, but Silvers also brings plenty to the party, even if he’s not quite as flashy as his predecessor.
Several things set Hippie Death Cult apart from their peers and they’re on full display throughout Helichrysum. I guess the most obvious is the quality of musicianship – rather than just hammer away at a neanderthal riff for ten minutes, these guys can play. Not in a showy-off sort of way, but in a way that really grabs your attention. Secondly, they steer well clear of any occult silliness and bring some proper existential rage instead. Finally, the songwriting across the album is awesome – for me, a marked step up from their previous (and excellent) records.
It’s a heavy, memorable and superbly played collection of tunes that you should seek out forthwith…
Opener, Arise is awesome straight out of the gate and was plenty good enough to put any concerns I had to rest. Eddie Brnabic’s instantly recognisable guitar tone is present and correct, underpinned by a satisfyingly upfront growly bass. The band lock into one of those mid-paced grooves you know and love, add on a chorus and other vocal sections that’ll be stuck in your head for days and throw in some epic solos to kick the record off in style. Next up is Shadows, where the band show they can rock the quiet-verse-loud-chorus dynamic as well as anyone and then decide to make it even better with more sweet groove and guitar heaviness.
Better Days is a touch more mellow, but the band still manage to sound plenty pissed off. It’s another track where you notice what good songwriters they are – it’s been firmly lodged in my head since the first listen and, as with most other tracks, takes plenty of interesting instrumental diversions on the way. The gentle opening to Red Giant lulls you into thinking that you’re in for more of the same, before the band stamp their foot on the gas and Brnabic cranks out a dizzyingly dextrous riff. As well as inspiring me to some snazzy alliteration, it’s another absolutely cracking tune.
Impressively, Hippie Death Cult keep the quality high all the way to the end of the record. Toxic Annihilator is another foot-to-the-floor rager with double bass drumming and more epic riffs that show Brnabic can pick significantly quicker than you or I ever will. Nefelibata shows the band combining disgust and the status quo with an irresistible groove to excellent effect. I particularly enjoyed the middle section with the multi-tracked vocals; a simple idea but really effectively done. Tomorrows Sky might lack the requisite apostrophe but has everything else you might want to close such an excellent album. It has a gentler, more psych-influenced feel that’s entirely fitting and brings proceedings to an end with some style.
There have been a ton of excellent albums released in 2023 and Helichrysum is right up there with the best of them. It’s a heavy, memorable and superbly played collection of tunes that you should seek out forthwith.
Scribed by: Liam Blanc