[Cover artwork: Nighjar Illustration with Photos by Broken Int and Layout by Branca Studio]
Here’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself: “Can I pull off a cape?” Here’s an answer: “No, you cannot pull off a cape.”
That’s because you’re not in Hällas. Members of Hällas can pull off capes. They use those capes to soar across astral planes, harnessing the radioactive power of stars as their renewable fuel source. You probably haven’t even been to space. Loser. You probably haven’t even opened your third eye in an effort to become an astral seer. Idiot. Fortunately for you, the guys in Hällas have done these things. [Editor’s note: Last Rites claims no actual knowledge of Hällas’ space-faring experience.] They’ve taken the time to shag out their van, power it up with psychedelic gemstones, and transcend the planes of existence where they end up surfing space upon boards made of million-year-old stardust and candy cane residue. And don’t forget about wine. It’s probably crucial to listen to Hällas while sipping wine, specifically the namesake, Conundrum (the publishing company referenced in the movie Sideways) which has become a real wine.
Taking away singles, flexi-discs and such, Hällas has released an EP and an LP before this. The EP showed flashes of uniqueness–a band paving the astral pathways with a roadmap for what would become their sound. The LP, Excerpts From a Future Past, qualifies as “criminally underrated” in that it transcended metal, psych rock, conceptual art and (of course) fashion in a way that no other contemporary band has been able to. Cheesiness, ringer tees and used boots cast Hällas as the real goddamn deal–steeped in the sounds of yore and ready to take them into the worlds, universes and theoretical planes beyond. Conundrum finds them ready to lead the way as explorers and adventurers. With capes of course.
Plenty of tracks on Conundrum will be a welcome blanket of warmth. “Labyrinth of Distant Echoes” could easily be a piece of their self-titled EP, but it has an added flare for fuzzy guitar solos and a touch of synth. Alternatively, “Beyond Night and Day” will represent something of a departure into a more sports-montage feel. Where previously it was harmonized guitars locked that led the way, the keyboards have taken to the bow of the spaceship. Yet at the heart of all tunes – roto-toms and synthesizers aside – the same feeling and timeless energy swaths the tunes in the Cape of Hällas. Against a background of pink nebulae, guitar riffs crunch and punch while drums gallop along on a tight hi-hat, pumping the musical engines into warp overdrive. These are tunes for adventure, curiosity and ultimately personal reflection. For what are we in this vast nothingness, if not nothingness ourselves?
“Carry On” shows the most exploration on the new record. Forswearing their distinctive 70s rock sound, the band slides carelessly into the 80s and turns up the synths, the pacing and ultimately the aerobics. Synthesizers dominate the early landscape of the track, emitting a sound appropriate for…
…a chase scene in a motivational 80s film about a Boy born with only one leg. The Boy, against all odds, learns to ski and easily dominates the slopes on his first wintry vacation with his family. Boy’s parents don’t know where he’s been. They can’t believe he has abandoned so many family dinners in a row after they went to all this trouble to rent a chalet that was handicap accessible for him. Well, Mom and Dad and Popular Sister, he’s been on the slopes learning to dominate. Learning to shred and slalom and hot dog with the best of ‘em. In fact, the ski instructor was so impressed he gave your son his fluorescent pullover. It changes color when it’s super cold outside. And guess what? Your son has been ripping it up in that pullover late into the evenings and now he’s ready for the slope championships. You’ll see what he’s accomplished and welcome him back into the family with open arms, much to the dismay of Popular Sister, who was hoping her dance routine would be the highlight of the trip…[Please Note: Editor’s flourish/embellishment by Zachary “The Giraffe” Duvall]
If “Carry On” doesn’t make you picture that or an equally triumphant story, then you’re deader inside than a Christmas cactus left outside deep into April showers.
Closing in on the finish line, “Blinded by the Emerald Mist” is drenched in analog warmth, harmonized guitars and softly-crooned vocals. It’s as much a track for deep meditation as it is for slow-dancing with your best partner, and the spacious 7-minute run time allows for both ample breathing room and a few absolutely rocking sections, the latter of which display that deft drum skill. One lovely bridge – imagine a different kind of bridge where lovers stare longingly into each other’s eyes – marks a brief pause before the track comes alive again with all the curiosity fans have come to expect from Hällas. The track is warmed by layered synths humming in the background, playing off the guitars as a crescendo builds and our hero is blinded.
Closer “Fading Hero” feels like a more 80s approach to their previous “hit” “Star Rider.” “Fading Hero” is the longest track on the album, features the most liberal use of synthesizers and keyboards, and provides the most significant venture into the adventure metal realm in which Hällas claims residence. Interestingly, the tune delves into the oft-avoided realm of robot voices and bass grooves. Before you lean back in your chair so far you fall out and sustain a serious concussion, know that this move of Daft Punk daring actually works. It’s something of a culmination of the Hällas view on music writing and it ties the entirety of Conundrum up into a nice bow before riding off into the distance on celestial unicorns.
At this point, Hällas seems more like they are creating a cult rather than a single album, career or song. They’ve created a universe complete with multi-dimensional planes of existence, afterlife lore and plenty of hypnotizing rhythms and melodies. It’s a single universe experience on the level of Star Wars or Malazan. A universe in which certain creatures, planets and planes exist singularly and exclusively. Conundrum is the best example yet of Hällas creating a complete and compositionally cohesive record. The band seems like something that can never not be there, like something that has just always been part of our souls. And for those that get it, they believe fully in the vision, passion and endless surge for adventure at the core of Hällas’ music.