They still have the same asinine name. Zach Hill’s drumming remains a spastic frenzy. Spencer Seim’s guitar still soars with high-speed precision weirdness. But There’s No 666 in Outer Space is unlike any Hella we’ve seen before.
Having gained fame for their avant-garde instrumental math rock as a duo, Hill and Seim have added Hill’s cousin Josh Hill (guitar) and Carson McWhirter (bass), with whom they played in a band before becoming a duo out of necessity when they failed to find a singer. Enter Aaron Ross, a former butcher from Nevada City, California, who now handles vocals for the revamped Hella. First Dylan goes electric, and now Hella adds a full-time lead singer?
Somehow, with all the new ingredients that have been added, Hella’s music seems (relatively) more streamlined. It’s not that the musicianship has faltered. But having three additional musicians necessitates a simplification of the sound and has caused a drift away from the unpredictable anything-can-happen style of previous Hella into a (relatively) more conservative direction.
Most of the problem lies with Ross’s reedy monotone, an unwelcome distraction from the get-go. Perhaps his style could be overlooked if not for the half-baked lyrics. “Money doesn’t make the world go ’round/ it’s the center of the universe we should drown,” he says in “The Things That People Do When They Think No One’s Looking.” Hella’s musicians play with such soulfully impassioned release and technical skill-qualities far too rarely found together-that Ross’s emotionless delivery and narrow range drag the entire project down. He may have traded his meat slicer for a microphone, but he’s still a butcher.
The highlights, not surprisingly, are instrumental. Saxophonist Skerik, whose freak-out style has earned him countless guest appearances with proggy Bay Area rock and jazz bands, contributes his trademark insanity in three tracks. The busy but seamless interplay between Zach Hill and Seim is to be expected, but Josh Hill and McWhirter are equally adept at hyperactive complementary lines that wind around the quartet in a frenetic tumult. And Hella’s familiar video-game keyboard sounds on “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” are most welcome.
But great musicianship does not a great album make, particularly when the singer is so out of his league. Today’s music landscape already has a stale, watered-down version of the Mars Volta in the Mars Volta. There may not be a 666 in outer space, but back here on Earth, Hella’s uniqueness has been compromised, and sacrificing distinctiveness for convention strikes me as downright sinister.