Luke Younger yields his most engrossing work as Helm with the sorely romantic dynamics of ‘Chemical Flowers’, his follow-up to 2015’s ‘Olympic Mess’. Bolstered by J.G. Thirlwell’s rich string arrangements, it’s a hugely ambitious work that extends from whirling, panoramic vistas to insular, pulsing dynamics, somewhere between Earth, Oren Ambarchi, Keiji Haino and Actress.
Recorded in long, sustained sessions in the Essex countryside, giving him breathing room from the choke of London, ‘Chemical Flowers’ feels more elusive and ambitious than anything we’ve heard from Helm recordings in the past. While typically concerned with the nature and sound ecology of urban life, the Helm sound now feels more edgeland, drawing on a sense of marshy menace and concrete-meets-country dread limned so evocatively in classic J.G. Ballard novels, and surely recognisable by anyone in the UK beyond off-grid folk in Pembrokeshire or the Scottish highlands, perhaps.
Given the luxury of space and time, Younger detectably reflects on past experience touring and playing live, as ambiguous nods to the strings and tones used in his Egyptian ‘Rawabet’ recordings subtly colour and marble the eight tracks, thanks to string parts arranged by J.G. Thirlwell (Foetus/Manorexia/Xordox, The The), plus saxophone from Karl D’Silva and Lucinda Chua’s cello. These acoustic touches lend human sweat and grease to proceedings which Younger uses sparingly but crucially in his electronically sculpted stagings.
In effect, Helm pulls something hallucinatory from the mundane and prosaic, akin to viewing other dimensions refracted and projected into the dark from within a brightly lit bus or train carriage during a long commute, when the mind slips into the realm between reality and waking dreams. As we pass under the flight paths and neon, microtonal ephemera of ‘Capital Crisis (New City Loop)’ this nocturnal mindset plays out in the most absorbing ways, slipping from Yves Tumor or David Axelrod-like symphonic soul strokes and trip hop drums in ‘I Knew You Would Respond’ then the ambient noise qwheeze of ‘Body Rushes’, while ‘Lizard In Fear’ captivates with its hyperrealist electroacoustic evocation of a drowned Thames estuary, and the title and gnawing tone of ‘Toxic Racecourse’ could be an allegory for London itself.
But Younger makes sure to keep that view of London ambiguous, at arms length, by returning to hypnotic rhythms like the doomy pulse of ‘You Are The Database’ that glumly precedes ‘Chemical Flowers’, a majestic widescreen synth piece that poignantly manifests the allure and promise of the city as much as its isolating qualities.