Darkness permeates the music Luke Younger makes as Helm. On “Mirror Palms,” from 2013’s stunning Silencer, a black cloud of electronics billows up slowly, like smoke in a David Lynch film, until it swallows all available space, gradually joined by what sounds like shrieking, mechanical wraiths. On the fourteen-minute “IV,” from 2011’s Cryptography, menacing saw blades whir and grind eternally, eventually joined by ghoulish, high-pitched drones. So it’s a bit alarming when his latest — and, arguably, strongest — record, Olympic Mess, opens with a song called “Don’t Lick the Jacket,” and it consists mainly of warping synths that are certainly strange and wobbly, but are by no means violent. If anything, it sounds a bit like something from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, just tied up in knots and then submerged in an ice bath.
“I wanted to do a record that was a bit more digestible,” Younger concedes. “I was listening to the last two Actress records quite a lot, and I really like the way he [Daniel J. Cunningham] puts his records together. The production’s definitely a lot smoother. It’s a lot more electronic. There’s less organic sound on it. I think that lends itself to a certain accessibility. There’s still some pretty aggressive elements in there. It’s just that they’re more subtle.”
To be fair, when it comes to calling a Helm record “accessible,” it’s something of a sliding scale. Over the course of the last eight years, Younger has created some of the most gripping and singular records in what could best be termed “abstract electronic music” — even though much of his work is constructed from severely distorted organic sounds. Impossible Symmetry, from 2012, was like a fever dream set inside an abandoned car factory, full of strange clanging, stomach-punishing bass tones, and suffocating drones. But describing the specifics of a Helm record is tricky; what makes Younger’s work so remarkable is the way all of his albums are able to conjure a specific, unshakable feeling of dread. Much like the work of Francis Bacon, you’re never quite sure what’s going on, you just know it isn’t good. That Olympic Mess is more streamlined and succinct only allows for more opportunities for the uninitiated to disappear into his weird spirit world.
Unsurprisingly, Younger’s roots are in punk rock, an interest he still explores sporadically with the hardcore outfit The Lowest Form. “I just liked the energy of punk,” he says. “I liked the fact that a lot of people were doing something quite creative with little budget. That D.I.Y. aesthetic of just doing something, regardless of how good you are technically — there’s something quite liberating about that which I enjoyed.” His discovery of celebrated noise outfit Whitehouse eventually led him in a different direction, but where that band can be more about conjuring active violence, Younger’s work seems more grounded in clammy, night-terror style anxiety. Take “Strawberry Chapstick,” from Olympic Mess. The source — a voice whispering the responses to fairly ordinary questions — comes from an ASMR video designed to make the listener feel tingles of pleasure. But in Younger’s reconfiguring, slowed down and deepened, it becomes more ominous, like a madman murmuring non sequiturs before moving in for the kill.
“Using the voice is something I’ve wanted to do for a while,” he says. “I just liked the idea of putting an element in there that was so explicitly human. The way it’s deliberately placed at that point in the record, it is a bit unexpected. It just sort of brings you out of the record for a brief moment and then you’re dropped right back into it with the start of the next track. The actual words, what’s being said, aren’t really important at all. It’s pretty mundane. That’s kind of the point. The fact it’s there, its whole place in the record — that’s what you’re questioning.”
In a way, making Olympic Mess easier to enter aligns with Helm’s entire guiding philosophy. Over the last few years, Younger has opened for acts like Iceage and Destruction Unit, who, while not exactly Meghan Trainor, are certainly far afield of Helm’s grim ambiance. “It’s just a bit more interesting,” Younger says. “I just like having the opportunity to perform to different types of people who may never have heard this kind of thing before. On the Iceage tour I had people coming up to me asking me what kind of music it was I made, because they’d never heard anything like it. That’s nice, I think. It’s important to do that.” Indeed, at a time when infinite-recommendation engines, rather than encouraging adventurousness, allow people to burrow down deep into a specific niche, Younger’s determination to foist a bit of discomfort onto unsuspecting audiences is refreshing. “People are quite happy having stuff spoon-fed to them,” he says. “Spoon-fed the nice, same, delicious thing to consume.” He laughs. “Sometimes it’s nice to stick something in their mouths that’s a bit more disgusting.”
Helm plays Trans-Pecos on August 21. For ticket information, click here.