The partnership between Hella guitarist and co-founder Spencer Seim and singer-songwriter Aaron Ross constitutes a union of two of music’s most experimental subsets: noise and freak folk. Dedicated Hella fans will recognize Ross from his vocal tenure on the band’s 2007 album, There’s No 666 In Outer Space, which reconfigured the group’s usually intricate noise rock into a poppier, more psychedelic-leaning model. And indeed, that’s what makes Solos and Beast Of Both Worlds, so intriguing: Though it’s an LP that appears experimental on paper, the album that resulted from this musical union is actually filled with solid pop-rock songs.
The most prevalent instrumental influence here is Led Zeppelin; the coupling of Seim’s noisy, percussive acrobatics (marking Seim’s first time behind the kit since his work with sBACH in ’08) with Ross’s acoustic strumming recalls the rustic rock of III. But that’s where the comparisons end. These are musicians who share a knack for hairpin turns in tempo and melody, for deconstructing straightforward anthems into frenzied fuzz-jams when you least expect it. Single “Carpe Diem,” in particular, offers a showcase for this type of approach, punctuating an infectious hook with some technically impressive drum fills of which Hella bandmate Zach Hill would be proud. There’s also “Pissin’ On The Satisfaction,” a bite of ’90s nostalgia with accordingly grungy guitar wheedling.
Ross’s voice is thin and unfiltered compared to the burly instrumentation, and new listeners might find his Buckley-esque singing to be lacking the immediacy of, say, Joshua Tillman of Father John Misty fame. But his earnest, introspective composition more than compensates for any vocal shortcomings. “The Darwin Blues” is an insightful look into the pain of being human—or rather, the stark realization we all make that we are “just animals,” made all the more unsettling by the song’s thumping, complex tempo. As to be expected by any songwriter of merit, the lyrics can be occasionally byzantine and hard to pin down; ditto for the songs themselves. But Ross and Seim make the complexity worthwhile. Beast Of Both Worlds is a record that may easily be overlooked, especially by Hella enthusiasts who have written off the band’s later, more straightforward efforts. Don’t make that mistake—there’s catchiness within the complexity and more than enough noise to go around.