Chesley reflects on fragility of life on emotional, intense new Helen Money opus ‘Become Zero’

Helen MoneyHeaviness in music is a rather subjective issue, and what one person finds weighty could cause arguments with totally different people. It’s something of a mind frame, and when you hear something that has unquestioned heaviness, you know it right away.

On that wavelength, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone hearing Alison Chesley’s work under her Helen Money moniker and hear anything but abject heaviness. In case you’re not familiar with her or her work, she’s armed with just a cello that’s often wickedly electrified, and the results can be something as crushing as the scariest metal on the planet. She proves her wares yet again on her excellent new record “Become Zero,” an eight track instrumental effort that combines doom, sludge, drone, experimental styles, chamber music, you name it. It’s delicate and dripping with tar, often within the confines of the same song, and while it might not be metal by definition, it sure is heavy and foreboding as hell. The record also has more delicate moments and passages that can sweep you away, making for a great push-pull dynamic and creating some of her most compelling music.

Become Zero coverChesley, who has worked with bands as varied as Anthrax, Broken Social Scene, and Russian Circles, has four records under her Helen Money name, kind of sort of. Her first effort was in 2007 under her given name but called “Helen Money,” then she released “In Tune” in 2009 under the Money name. “Arriving Angels” was released in 2013 by Profound Lore, which awakened the metal audience to her work, and now comes “Become Zero” on Thrill Jockey. On this record, she once again works with Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, Rachel Grimes, and collaborator and co-producer Will Thomas, who also provides sound effects and samples. This album is one of the deepest and most emotional of her career, having created the music following the death of her parents, which pushed her to new boundaries and caused her to dig even deeper within herself to come to terms with the end of existence.

The record starts with “Every Confidence” that opens up into mournful tones, as Chesley’s cello hovers before it electrifies and unleashes a swarm of buzzing drone. Doom swells and darkens every corner before things go clean again, sounds swell and boil, and the track fades off like a stream drying. The title track starts with a speedier round of cellos and the drums kicking in and loosening the plaster. Static jumbles, while pianos blend in, and the track blends into something tribal and spiritual. “Radiate” is the longest track at 8:50, and it starts in a cloud of drone, with waves and darkness and cold winds overwhelming. Chesley’s cello quivers quietly, as an angelic soundscape sprawls ahead and joins up with an autumnal haze. The last bit of the song is tranquil and hazy, as it disappears into a vapor. “Blood and Bone” has piano and cello scraping, feeling rustic and rainy. An elegant gaze begins to thicken, while the song slowly makes its way for the door.

“Vanished Star” has melody lines cutting in, with the winds sweeping along, before the piece hits an electrified field and gives off reverberations. Pianos bleed along as the song hits a gentle crescendo before bowing out. “Machine” opens with noise loops hypnotizing, the cello calculatingly plucked, and power pushing through. The sounds shimmer and give off energy, while a sound halo forms and surrounds your head, as the piano takes over and drips the song dry. “Leviathan” has drums erupting and circling, the cello feeling grimy and gloomy, and the melodies and ambiance slipping dangerously close to black metal territory. The pace mauls and chews, while the walls of chaos slowly dissipate into dust. Closer “Facing the Sun” feels like the great star rising over the horizon, with drone lapping and a second riff emerging behind that is a little lighter. As the chaos dies down, a single cello line flies overhead, with calmness arriving at long last and lifting the hurt into the stars.

Chesley faced circumstances many of us have or will one day when making “Become Zero,” and that humanity and emotional richness are poured into each song. She might not fit the traditional mold of what some deem heavy, but her music and inspirational content both carry more than enough weight. This is a cataclysmic, heart-wrenching record that constantly tests the heart and soul and perhaps can inspire some introspection on our own existence that is frighteningly fragile.

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