In preparing myself for Unify Gathering 2018, I fell hard for Hellions‘ 2016 album Opera Oblivia and became fascinated with this Sydney band and their penchant for inspired takes on life which are as topical and relevant as they are poetic.
I came into Rue craving more of the same; wanting for Hellions to take me into these vibrant and thoughtful pockets of questioning the society we live in. With Rue, Hellions had their “fifth member” Shane Edwards produce, recording at Karma Sound Studios in Thailand. Shane is a man that in the band members’ words “has a musical imagination that knows no bounds”. With high hopes I began my exploration of Hellions’ fourth album, created by Dre Faivre (vocals), Matthew Gravolin (guitar/vocals), Josh Campiao (guitar), and Anthony Caruso (drums/percussion/vocals).
I’ll be honest in saying that my usual approach to reviewing didn’t work for me at all with Rue. I started and restarted several times over. Hellions make their listeners work with their densely packed pieces of music, and therefore make their reviewers work too, and I tried to come to grips with the album. Firstly, as the press release shared, Rue is “an album in which message and music are often tonally juxtaposed”. This is true, and made it tough for a feelsy listener to process; coming across as either jarringly incongruent, or seeming like two conversations at once that you really want to pay attention to, ending up split in two and not getting a full picture, at least in the early stages of the album.
It made perfect sense then, to have Matt Gravolin thematically refer to a ‘divided existence’ within us, and talking about “the co-existence of a Jekyll and Hyde operating within a person at any one time.” It also made sense why my attempts to review felt like I was missing half the story. In attempting to review, I was literally experiencing Hellions’ focus with Rue; the question of “How can we overcome our struggles with one another if we don’t fully understand the one raging inside ourselves?”
With this album, Hellions share that they ‘rue’ “the complexity of the human condition and, by extension, the world in its current state of affairs.” So I surrendered to the idea of the music and message together making congruent sense (as I’d ordinarily expect it to), and instead allowed myself to be open to complexity and disharmony in this sonic art, accepting it how it was.
From the word go this disharmony is apparent, where the 34 second album opener “(Blueberry)” blends big top chaos with velvety harmonies. The circus-esque stage setter has a lot going on; random crowd calls, erratic tamborines, a chimed melody, waltz timing, as well as stunning vocals. This clash between aimless noise and stunningly sounding vocal back-patting (“Oh praise be to us, the most intelligent organisms to gush forth from the womb of nature’s grand concourse. Long may we reign!”) comes across as blind praise in a chaotic existence. It reminds me of an ignorantly proclaimed ‘top of the food chain’ status, assuming that everything humans have done to the world with industrialisation (for example) is superior to whatever was occurring before it.
“Mister, why so blue?”
Then grandly opening into “Odyssey”, a bouncing forward driving pace feels at odds with the negative lyrical commentary. It mentally reminds me of a “good thanks” business man going through the motions of an existence that seems to have no purpose aside from just keeping on doing it, to get… somewhere. And yet at the same time, it’s all very lively and animated that it’s extremely danceable.
More solid feeling drumming at the chorus spark a sense of waking up or at least shifting gears (literally as is said lyrically: “Slow down, Mister Blue”). A call to be stepping out of that ‘daily grind’ into something else. As Dre’s vocals get more uneasy/desperate, the bouncing pace takes on a feeling of pulling a person forward against their will; literally being stuck in a life that makes you unhappy. The lyric “God, what have they done to you?” ponders the transformation that got the same-old business man to where he is.
On my first attempt to review Rue, it was “Odyssey” where I got stuck, and I’ll be honest to say I reached out to Hellions (via their publicity manager) for a cheeky bit of help. In their own words: “The verses are voiced by a present-day pessimist, feeling immured within his consciousness, turning to excess and abandon for a reprieve. The voice of his inner child bleeds into the chorus, pleading him to remember that the world hadn’t always felt that way and that it doesn’t need to. The present-day character finds himself desperate for change in the bridge of the song, having heard the cries of his lost innocence and naiveté.”
“Odyssey”‘s bridge takes on one of those ‘dark night of the soul’ moments where the protagonist questions if they can keep doing this life. Musically it’s a stunning culmination of the best of Hellions coupled with orchestral fullness; a moment that serves up goosebumps to the extreme given this person is waking up and embracing the one life that they have. Soon followed by a huge and hand-clap-tastic chorus, it vibes like coming back home to yourself.
As Rue continues, we follow the thread of our protagonist coming to life outside of his mousewheel existence. With (the beloved mega-single) “X (mwah)”, Hellions take a ‘live life to the fullest’ concept to the extreme, bringing to life the Hunter S. Thompson quote, visually and in danceable song:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Considering the fact we are comprised of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms as well as other elements that were originally stars, “X (mwah)” shines a questioning light toward the use of our lives/lifetime. Shunning a contained/oppressed approach to living, we’re instead urged to ‘drain the marrow ‘fore I make old bones’, and give in to losing ourselves to the rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.. that just might kill us. The soaring track is akin to blowing a kiss to anything that encases us. It casts a magnetic pull to throw ourselves into the flames of life and be joyfully warmed, savagely seared, brutally melted, AND enjoy every moment of it.
“X (mwah)” is purpose built on all fronts to lose yourself to and forget about anything and everything else except the music. We’re all shuffling the same mortal coil. Whatever makes makes us feel alive, and whatever has us feel at home, we should dive at it and let it kill us – with a smile on our faces.
At the close of the music video is a quote, of which a variant makes its way into the next track “Smile”:
“How much pain can I sustain
How much more can I inflict
Before the blood will billow, bellowing;
“No, you are not from here””
Being beaten and bloody from going full-pelt at life is a different kind of pain to trying to squish oneself into a situation where you don’t fit, resulting in severing your realest self. The undercurrent question of asking if someone is ‘ready to run’ from the pain and toward true meaning and purpose seems to be what “Smile” is expressing.
I can’t help but notice that the clowns have died down at this point of Rue and we’re firmly strapped into the driver’s seat heading somewhere instead of lost in the noise and chaos. That ‘somewhere’ we’re headed is to look to the self and inwardly tending to our own choices and beliefs, instead of idly gushing with pointless, heartless, meaninglessness.
The infectious catchiness of the songs of Rue is tough to put into words, where it truly seems like Hellions have hit upon a magic formula for great songs. The repeated invitations to run (away from the old and toward the new), coupled with explosive satisfaction and honesty at the anthemic choruses, graceful yet distorted harmonies, and bassline nods of encouragment.. it all pulls together for a monumental invitation to break into something imperfect but free.
And the music video is icing on the cake. This is what breaking out into joy-filled freedom looks like:
We already know and love “Furrow”, the fifth track of the album and second single released. It initially takes a softer approach to the fact that we have but one life to live. Angelic vocals express gentle observations of life, seemingly looking at oneself from the future and reflecting on what they’ve become.
Launching into more driven assertion, the pre-chorus sees “Furrow” hit upon a determined call for a partner to recognise the differences between the two of them, and how see how mortality begs for them to be themselves. Anthony describes it as dealing with “the mental processes of learning to accept, understand, forgive and above all, love someone in a relationship, where clashing values and morals are constantly challenging not only commitment to another person, but our own happiness.”
Clear as to how self-worth inspired by outside forces can rock a relationship dynamic, this is most noticeable at “Furrow”‘s beautiful bridge. The grips of paranoia and self-doubt see the protagonist not only refuse love and apology from their other, but instead urge them to leave their side. The key change and layers of aching vocals add to this last push of effort.
Leaving us with the line of “I’m not the same as you” that trails off really hits home when the earlier messages about individuality and living your life as your own self come intermingled with it. “Furrow” takes on the view of this struggle for identity and purpose in the dynamic of a relationship. Not only do the characters have oppressive jobs, they have partners who know them as existing in the way they do, and may need a nod of realisation/acceptance/permission from their partner that as time ticks on, they are ever more urged (to run) at the life they want.
“There’s nobody else I’d rather torment”
Moving onward into new territory of Rue, the sweetly instrumental “(Cocoon)” feels like we’re dreaming about “Furrow”, or maybe floating among the stars; temporarily buffeted from the sharp angles of reality. It’s a 1:12 track of chimes, humming guitar, layers of synth, and subtle floaty chords billowing around us as we slowly drift aimlessly.
“Rue” pulls us out of the relationship dynamic and out into the global. Thematically tying back in to “Odyssey”, in a way, “Rue” is the interlacing of fingers with the inner child who spoke on the second track; a youthful outlook where we are fearless instead of suspicious. Initially sung by Matthew Gravolin, I’m marking “Rue” as my favourite of the album, based on the sobbing heart-wrenching impact it had upon me.
In calm honesty, we’re reminded of the fact we’re all existing together in the same home (‘this blue-green spinning rock’), all capable of feeling love or pain, and all bleeding when injured. Slamming and thudding beats and a refusal to hate foreshadow a majestic chorus that’s impossible to not be swept into. Have you got goosebumps yet? It’s unreal.
If Hellions don’t move you with the chorus, the humble bridge and Matt’s heartaching and gentle truth bombs will, before a key change seems to make it hit even more powerfully. This is one of those songs you could mentally picture being televised in the 80s with various rock stars collectively lending their voices to it in the name of a charity. Ignoring an inherent cheese factor, that’s my way of saying it’s that damn good, and also that important and uniting.[It should be noted that I ended up having this song in my head for days after hearing it. It’s a beautifully encouraging earworm that I woke up to, wishing I could already stream it on repeat through my Spotify.]
It should be unsurprising that Rue is split into two, by way of Hellions’ take on inner conflict. The clowns and crowd that had settled down and left us with impactfully congruent songs have now returned in the second part of the album. I’m not a fan of the clowns at all, but if they’re there to express the messiness of existing and the voices of inner conflict, I can deal with them.
In “(Theatre Of)” we’re theatrically and deliciously introduced (by ‘Luna’) to a man ‘confined to a cage of his own creation, governed by an arcane incantation’. Given this description, any one of us could be the centrepiece of this freakshow, and again we seem to be sinking into a darker self view, and with attention firmly focused upon us.
With urging and driving tribal beats, “The Lotus” continues the show, detailing the traits of the ‘aberration’. Seeming to surrender himself to a life devoid of fulfillment and a subsequent slide into depression, the track is virtually “Lotus Eater” Part 2, where apathy and mortality dance together. Fans of Opera Oblivia will love the familiarity of the pre-chorus here, along with a present day freshness.
A stand-out feature of “The Lotus” for me are the second and third verses, where zig-zagging riffs pull down into something both lurching and light, thunderous reverberating hums mixing in with infectious vocal rhythms and floods of syllables. I love love love this combination of sounds and feeling and how a syllabic blast is so infectiously danceable. Buried in the foamy unsettling (yet pleasurable) waves is a battle of ‘martyr and masochist’.
The chorus itself is so urging and full of life it’s another instance of inspiring infectious movement. I’m really going to have to find more words to say ‘danceable’. This song keeps on rolling on, with varying shades and angles that somehow combine brilliantly, and it’s kind of awe-inspiring just letting it wash over you. There’s a lot going on, but it works!
Ongoing tension crafted most obviously by guitar bleeds into the pre-chorus crafting a palpable battle where the ‘lotus in my mouth’ and the self-created containments (‘the belljar we’ve made’) are given focus; no longer wanting to exist as they are, but not necessarily finding the energy or drive to break out of it into something else. A fraught piano bridge, with echoing melodies and slamming beats, is even more delicious tension being created. It’s at the very satisfying (and moving, but I’m kind of just crying at everything here) last chorus where you can virtually see the glass container shatter – where we become free of the cage of our own creation.
“I want to swim in the clouds,
dive straight into the ground
Get up and climb then dive and try to fly again”
Funky as hell, “Get Up” takes the man broken free from apathy and urges him onward. This is a grooving trip through bass city, where rapped lyrics make this a really tasty track. There’s a very cool retro vibe happening here, especially at the verses and more profoundly at the 80s drum-machine-esque bridge. I love it all and can’t wait to dance to this at Unify 2019.
In terms of meaning this track pushes further at the ‘living life to the fullest’ theme that we heard in “X (mwah)” and embracing the bloody wounds we might gain in our journey of live. This is most noticeable at the second verse, asking to “introduce a little vertigo” with those “vertiginous heights” and stepping out into the hugeness of life once free from the (self-manufactured) cage of fear. Taking chances and diving fully into life, irrespective of age, “Get Up!” inspires a full-speed run at reality that isn’t defined by a social media lens, but is the actual richness of life. Having your nature define who you are, not your appearance.
There’s so much to love about this and Hellions are walking their talk with letting their uniqueness of creativity shine all over Rue. This end of the album feels far more like fully shining in their own (furrowed) skin and being free of any other identity.
With the hand-clapping, grooving, ‘whoaa ohhh ohhh’s of “Harsh Light”, I know I’m at the tail end of the album and I’m sad about it. I keep saying ‘infectious’ but it’s 100% true. The tracks of Rue spark curiosity and hook in with memorable moments at choruses and pre-choruses, and we’re given the opportunity to choose if we want to dive into meatier sharings at the verses if we wish to, or we can just dance.
“Harsh Light” is no different, where that chorus is going to get stuck in your head, and then an echo of ‘what’s this about?’ will perhaps linger on, until you later come to a point of realisation. This is a(nother) tough thing about reviewing a Hellions release, because the quartet’s songs are the kind that grow on you and have longevity in terms of their meaning, as well as being instantly enjoyable.
In this second last track, an easy repeated melody has us then surrender to a rhythmic, gritty, and layered experience where we seem to be face to face with the idea of fame/popularity/pleasure as the aim in our otherwise drab existence. The lyric that hits hardest for me is:
“Everybody has their masks, and I got mine,
but I don’t wanna come alive at the expense of that shine”.
This track has me think ‘should we not just find some semblance of enjoyment in our every moment, since we have a many decades of existence ahead?’. Maybe it’s just me and what’s going on in my life and in my head, but this track seems to point toward those engaged in ‘the hustle’, knowing that the resultant pleasures and the effort itself may be fleeting aside from the bulk of the time where we’re ‘just existing’, mostly unnoticed. What goes on in those pockets of time is maybe more important than (briefly) riding high on the wins.
That sounds really depressing maybe, but to me it says to embrace every shade of it as being worthwhile. It showcases the point of making choices that have you feel good and forgetting about loftier aims that may have a ratio of damage:success far greater than you’d expect for the intended pay-off. Aside from this, what I understand from “Harsh Light” is that sameness; in how we all are united in the way we’re on this same journey of life and all striving for greatness. We’re all the same, and maybe we should be honest about our struggles – be more real with each other, whether collapsing bloodied and bruised or dancing on desks.
With Hellions’ signature song series across their albums (and “24” being one of my all-time favourite songs), I was very keen to hear Rue‘s final track: “26”. The Queen influence is lyrically noticeable across the album, and “26” is another of those, referring to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. The “Harsh Light” idea of having joy contingent on something false or fleeting continues into “26” also, inspiring a deliberate dive into our ‘human right’ of happiness.
“26” encapsulates the earlier shared ideas of self-induced freedom and running at life – NOW – and that we have a right to be happy. We heard these things in Opera Oblivia too, but Rue offers more arguments as to why, and gives more of a sense of urgency through the lens of age and time passing. To me, it’s messages from a future self, calling for us to look at the freedom that a younger self felt, and to take inspiration from both the clock-ticking weight of mortality and how childhood saw us express ourselves without question, hesitation, fear, or doubt.
The second verse sums it up perfectly; both acknowledging ‘suicide kept in the back pocket’, and encouraging us to use our voices despite the subconscious accumulation of pain. There’s not a lot more that I can say that Hellions aren’t already saying here, and saying very well, in this inspiring and soaring piece of musing urging us to ‘revolt against the voices within’.
Musically, guitar gets a lot of love here, but it’s a layered feast of voice and sound that continues to climb to a beautiful mountaintop peak. I think I have some kind of condition which makes me cry whenever Matt sings, or maybe it’s just the sheer amount of compassion that leaks out in his words. This happened with “26” and I don’t care who knows it.
“and if you just listen close
I know that you’ll hear it
a purposeful pulse
engulfs the world you’ve always known.”
Prepare to get ruined by the swelling orchestrally cinematic celebration of Hellions, with violins movingly and peacefully seeing us to the close of Rue. We’re a long way from the slap-dash clown mayhem where we began.
I kind of don’t know how to sum all of this up: This adventure from chaos to reason, with moments of waking up and breaking free along the way. It felt like I was guided and engaged the whole way, intrigued by what the ‘characters’ of Rue were learning and experiencing, and easily related and embraced them. I was also buoyed by the blend of powerful ballads and grooving dance breaks which kept interest high while also continuing the same themes.
I wasn’t sure about the theatricality of circus sounds when I began my review, and took some time to adjust to seeing the incongruence as part of the story. I can see myself mulling over the themes of Rue well into the future from here, gleaning something from each listen. For one example, the whole symbolism of clowns is interesting in that they’re intended as bringers of happiness, yet initially seemed at odds again the protagonist who was oozing self-pride (until he began questioning his existence).
I love that Hellions are willing to push creative barriers in the name of expressing meaning that is important to them, while still retaining the factors of their sound that work. Rue is unmistakably Hellions, containing threads to previously released music and also more experimental takes, and not limited in any way by expectations or structure.
And with this, it hits home to me that Rue is Hellions making sense of their own divided existence, and their own tumble down a rabbit hole of questioning. In the process of creating these songs they’re breaking their own self-designed belljars and leading by example as to what pure unadulterated freedom is like. Hellions stand alone, and Rue is another fine example of this.
Rue releases on 19th October and is currently available for preorder via 24Hundred and iTunes.
There was something open-ended here, feeling like it was perhaps not fully DONE by way of the concept. Having said this, Hellions are urging individual exploration, not foolproof solutions for a joyful life.
Colourfully, creatively, and meaningfully exploring important questions of human life. Never a dull moment and engaging from end to end. Impressively huge by way of production, and emotionally impactful.