Sensory Overload: The Helionauts take an exhaustive journey at 4th St. Bar & Grill

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From the March 20, 2014 edition

Introducing “Hold My Own” at 4th St. Bar & Grill on a recent Thursday, Helionauts singer/guitarist Adam Brandt noted the appropriateness of the surroundings. “[This song] is about a bar,” he said. “And we’re in a bar.”

With that simple decree, the quartet launched into a shape-shifting guitar jam that opened amid rickety, reggae-leaning riffs before gradually giving way to a thicker, crunchier sound. “This place is getting loud,” sang Brandt as the music did just that, the four players balling together and swinging like a wrecking ball.

On its Facebook site, The Helionauts describes its sound as “indie beach-rock,” listing influences that range from the obvious (there was an undeniable reggae lurch in bassist Chris Moebius’ elastic playing) to less so (though jazz is cited, little of the form was discernible in the band’s performance here). The songs, in turn, sometimes sounded as though they’d been stitched together Frankenstein’s monster-style, and it wasn’t unusual for the same tune to swing from an island bounce to a jam-rock instrumental freakout — an occasionally jarring change-of-pace.

There were times this approach worked. On one song, the narrator wrestled with a relationship on the rocks, and the lyrical push-and-pull (“Do you want me to love you?” / “I let her go”) mirrored the shifts in the music, which raced from spirited pop-rock to mellower instrumental passages.

Generally, however, the best moments during the band’s 45-minute set were among the most straightforward. “Riff-Raff,” for one, lived up to its title, with Brandt and Eli Zimmerman trading riffs as casually as two tennis players warming up on the court. “Sundown,” in turn, kept things lean and minimal. “I’m on fire, baby,” Brandt howled as the musicians locked into a strutting funk groove.

One new tune, introduced as “Memphis,” opened displaying similar promise, the four-piece stitching together a heavy soul-influenced rhythm nearly as gritty as the song’s titular city. Of course, it wasn’t long until that familiar restlessness set in, and by cut’s end the group had taken detours to everywhere from Vermont (one instrumental passage was strangely reminiscent of early Phish) to the Caribbean — an exhausting journey that had this writer, at least, ready to call it a night.

Andy Downing photo