The Helio Sequence’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead kicks off with three rousing tunes: “Lately,” “Can’t Say No,” and “The Captive Mind.” Wrapped in warm atmospherics, well-nuanced electronica, and Brandon Summers’s rhapsodic voice, these are digitally enriched pop-folk songs at their finest. These tracks alone suggest a maturation in the Helio Sequence’s songwriting and sound that moves them further from 2004’s expansive but labored Love and Distance. No longer feeling like mere exercises in fusing folk and synth-pop, this time the arrangements are both airtight and jam-packed.
Functioning as their own recording cottage industry, Summers (vocalist and guitarist) and Benjamin Weikel (drummer and keyboardist) — who also produced Keep Your Eyes Ahead — have gotten quite good at what they do. This may be thanks in part to Summers, who after having recently shredded his vocal chords while on tour, turned to reading instead of talking, began rigorous vocal exercises, and studied proper microphone technique. Keep Your Eyes Ahead could easily be seen as the result of making the best out of a bad situation and succeeding in spades.
The infectious title tack, with its galvanic momentum and hypnotic mantra of “keep your eyes on right ahead,” is perhaps the albums most straightforward rock track. It rivals the likes of stadium heavyweights such as U2 but never trespasses into the murky depths of being sappily anthemic. And although the showier tracks mentioned above make for solid standouts, it’s on the down-tempo numbers that the Helio Sequence’s flair for nuance is best displayed. The acoustic “Shed Your Love” recalls the ambient brushstrokes of Brian Eno, and Summers’s vocals are all whiskey and velvet, recalling a young Willie Nelson.
There are missteps — particularly the Postal Service-reminiscent “You Can Come to Me” — but they are too few to hinder the whole. Keep Your Eyes Ahead is a will and testament to the virtues of growing pains.