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Monday, Sept. 23, 2013

Hello Death Find Comfort in Mortality

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Photo credit: Erik Ljung
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A band name can be worth a thousand words, and Hello Death says it all. The Milwaukee folk group that shares members with Altos released its debut self-titled album in June, and it’s the kind of decidedly bleak, darkly pretty thing you’d expect to hear from a band that has captured the essence of mortality in its name. But even with the thematic burden it bears, the album doesn’t cast our ultimate fates in an entirely hopeless light, or so the band assures me. I searched for a shred of optimism among the album’s eight songs, which range from somber to downright chilling, but I couldn’t find much. 

“‘Settlers’ is happy!” contends Marielle Allschwang, who plays guitar and violin and sings. She is referring to the album’s shimmering lullaby of an opening number, which happens to be the song that scares me the most. Even though it sounds “happy,” there is something deeply unsettling beneath its dew-drenched surface. “Killing all the sons / Put ’em in the forest,” Allschwang coos, “Bet you’ll never guess which part.” Even in its self-proclaimed happiest moments, Hello Death is singing about burying bodies. 

Though he jokes that Hello Death would be a good way to end a bad date, bassist, vocalist and primary songwriter Nathaniel Heuer stands up for its hopefulness. “I think there is hope,” he says, “but it has to do with the hope after the understanding that in most ways you have no real control, and everybody dies.” The album is full of that sort of backward inspiration: life sucks, you’re going to die someday, so get out there and live. “You have to be something,” Heuer sings wearily on “Good Luck,” “even if it’s nothing all that great.”

Glumness aside, Hello Death is actually very pleasant to listen to. Its bucolic, macabre sound could be emanating from some dark hollow in the same north woods forest where Justin Vernon so famously recorded For Emma, Forever Ago. In fact, it was recorded at Vernon’s April Base studio in Eau Claire, which is not quite a dark hollow, but it’s pretty close. The studio is built into an old swimming pool, which, along with an old-school plate reverb setup, explains the album’s cavernous, woodsy sound. On top of that, all four members are multi-talented musicians who got comfortable playing together in Altos. Hello Death often sounds like a small orchestra itself, with a mixture of baroque, folk and rock instrumentation that sounds both ornate and cozily homebrewed. And then there are the voices of Allschwang, Heuer and Erin Wolf, chanting back and forth like muses and men in a Greek tragedy. Allschwang and Wolf sing like angels, sometimes approaching the flamboyance of opera, while Heuer’s booming bass is like Zeus trapped in the body of a tortured, mortal man.

“When I write for Hello Death I try to keep it thematic,” Heuer says, and it shows. Though it has no deliberate narrative arc, the album flows together seamlessly. Heuer and the rest of the group took the sequencing aspect of Hello Death very seriously. Inspired by albums from his high school years, like Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing Shocking, Heuer tried to think of how he’d like to hear the songs together, how one would blend into another. As it is, listening to Hello Death is like being under an overcast sky that stretches forever. That’s not a knock, but a testament to its consistency and its devotion to a few specific ideas. It’s an absorbing, beautiful listen—even if it is nearly hopeless.

Hello Death open for Volcano Choir on Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Pabst Theater. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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