Sacramento, California-based progressive noise-rock duo Hella is so symbiotically tight that I imagine its members would die if separated. With Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard, they’ve decided to take that risk. Guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill have gone all Outkast on our asses, with each member responsible for half of the double-disc set. Like Speakerboxxx/Love Below, the set’s halves reveal two distinctive musical personalities while retaining the spirit of the group. Unlike Speakerboxxx/Love Below, one of the discs is a hell of a lot more fun to listen to than the other.
That disc is Seim’s Chirpin’ Hard. The bouncy analog synths that dominate most of the songs hint at Seim’s reverence for videogame music (he moonlights in the Advantage, an all-Nintendo-theme cover band). The title cut could pass as the soundtrack to a lost Ninja Gaiden level.
These instrumentals show a greater reliance on steady 4/4 beats, poppy melodies and structure than anything in Hella’s catalog. But that’s not to say Seim has abandoned the band’s artier tendencies. That trademark machine-gun rhythmic churn still emerges occasionally, as in the Primus-esque end of “Dad for Song.” And this is still bizarre music, with all sorts of left-field changes and samples cluttering the mix. But filtered as it is through Seim’s warped 8-bit vision, Chirpin’ Hard aims to tickle the mind rather than boggle it.
If Chirpin’ Hard is the soundtrack to a video game, Church Gone Wild is the cacophonous swarm of sound that greets you when you walk into an arcade. Hill has concocted a fifty-nine-minute musical melting pot, much more dissonant, guitar-heavy and chaotic than anything on Seim’s disc. Coherent melodies flicker briefly, only to be consumed by a growling bass line or shards of noise. Saloon piano careens against backward guitar loops and then runs headlong into a droning Boredoms-style noise jam. The only constant is the volcanic rumble of Hill’s Tourettic drumming, which for all its polyrhythmic precision seems unwilling to lock into a steady groove for too long.
Church Gone Wild isn’t total anarchy — Hill has painstakingly mapped out every last xylophone sample and crashing guitar squall. But even with the addition of Hill’s Animal Collective-style vocals, this music is so dense and unrelentingly intense that it leaves little to grab on to. You don’t listen to Church Gone Wild so much as submit to it. Hill intended that these twelve tracks be listened to straight through and treated as a single composition; all but the most adventurous listeners will have difficulty getting past the second track.
Both Church Gone Wild and Chirpin’ Hard represent significant steps forward, but the undeniably creative but also bloated and indulgent Church Gone Wild is bound to dictate popular opinion about the album. It will polarize Hella’s fan base, dividing those who applaud the band’s willingness to expand its sound and those who think the band should have stuck with math-rock freak-outs. It’s every band’s prerogative to change. The question is whether fans will follow along.