Judging by the sea of dyed black hair and lip rings that unfolded in front of the stage at the El Rey theater in Los Angeles on November 20, it was pretty clear that the audience had come for heavy-metal headliners the Dillinger Escape Plan. Heaviness isn’t a quality usually associated with Sacramento’s freakiest psych-prog ensemble Hella, unless we’re talking about guitarist Spencer Seim’s massive beard, which probably accounts for his horrendous posture. So it seemed a little weird that a band with no riffs, no screaming and no pretensions toward fearsomeness was opening for Dillinger Escape Plan, one of the most revered acts in the hardcore/metal scene.
There is one characteristic that Dillinger and Hella share: obscene amounts of chops. Very few guitarists play like Seim, whose jagged tapping and string-bending sound telegraphed in from some hyper-speed digital dimension. And nobody plays like drummer Zach Hill. He’s among the most virtuosic drummers in rock, but there’s always that suspicion that he might actually be an octopus. Live, it’s impossible to ignore the physicality of Hill’s seismic attack. And, Christ, does the guy ever have stamina. Hill’s performance was basically one long full-kit drum roll. During the brief moments when he wasn’t playing, Hill rocked back and forth like an autistic, as if he were waiting for some superhuman healing factor to recuperate his bulging muscles.
A lot of technically accomplished players exude this sense that the music is theirs to keep and theirs to display, like they’re more concerned with their own virtuosity than with the music they’re making. Hella was exactly the opposite. Each member of the band was visually elated, even humbled, by the dollops of sound they generated, as if he were honored to be channeling this magical stuff. New member Jonathan Hischke twirled in circles while tapping out his bass lines, and Seim’s eyes kept darting around, fixating intently on whoever happened to be doing something awesome at the moment. Even as he attended to his über-complex guitar rhythms, Seim was lost in this music, lost in his bandmates, lost in everything but himself. All the while, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Dan Elkan threw his non-sequiturs against the band’s impenetrable wall of sound, like some news commentator desperately trying to describe a war that’s raging behind him.
Hella mostly played material from 2005’s wildly experimental Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard, the band’s only release tailored to the expanded four-piece lineup. It’s a chaotic, messy album (especially the Church Gone Wild half), not nearly as listenable as the stuff released when Hella was just Hill and Seim. But with four people flailing around on stage, unleashing a hell-storm of rhythm and noise, the obliqueness of the new material became totally addictive. The sheer force that the band summoned set Seim and Hill’s mutant musical abilities free, gave them context – listening to older Hella records now, it almost sounds like the pair isn’t reaching its potential.
It’s a minor miracle that hardcore fans could get off on a band as non-confrontational as Hella. Even more impressive is that a group with some of the most excessively gifted musicians in rock could never once come off as indulgent. In 2005, Hella completed tours with both Dillinger Escape Plan and System of a Down. At least in the metal world, the band’s stock is rising. It’s about time the rest of us caught up.