Helios, “Caesura”

Boston’s Keith Kenniff is a frustratingly saccharine composer with plenty of talent but little equilibrium. His sober, painstakingly crafted arrangements are gorgeous hymns to the idea of beauty itself, at least in theory. In reality, some of his work is just a bit too stiff and composed for my ears.

Kenniff has seen critics toss names like Boards of Canada and Brian Eno his way and, to some extent, I can understand those comparisons: his music lilts more than it drives, ascends more than it accelerates, and tends towards the pleasures of simplicity and ambient somnolence. What Eno and the Boards of Canada have that Kenniff doesn’t is an exciting and singular appreciation for the unusual and unexpected. Helios’ fifth record is a pretty, but predictable exercise in electronic composition. Kenniff provides layers and layers of synthetic harmony and dreamy melodies, which wash over softly plodding drum machines that sound as though they’ve been suffocated under a mountain of pillows. He repeats this process almost without fail for the better part of an hour and succeeds in creating a truly ambient (meaning wallpaper-esque) record from dynamic and decidedly un-ambient parts. Caesura is enjoyable, but it is also without enough dynamism to keep it interesting.

Songs like “Glimpse” and “Fourteen Drawings” are filled with expertly picked guitars and honeyed chimes that coalesce in such a fashion that they seem practically made for each other; they’re wedded in the production so tightly that I can’t imagine them begin separated or interrupted by any other sounds. This effect is lovely, but as the album progresses and it is revealed that nearly each and every song is produced in this manner, it becomes a little nauseating. Pretty melody after pretty melody drifts by in a train of genteel austerity. This is very safe music made by a very careful and particular mind, so particular that anything out of place or even remotely dangerous is exorcised from the mix and cast off into oblivion. On one song it is possible to hear synth-pad X and then on the next, synth-pad Y mixed with drum palette B. Kenniff is deft with his use of acoustic sources, mixing them perfectly with a host of electronic instruments. The problem consists in his mixing those acoustic elements into the music too well; he manages to render them into little more than additional designs in a rather plain, but decorative rug.

Kenniff shines brilliantly when he steps out of himself and dares to escape the painfully anodyne components of his music. After eight tracks of decent, but completely homogenous tunes, “Shoulder to Hand” arrives carrying some achingly beautiful guitars and a just a hint of yearning. He incorporates a low, almost buzzing bass into the mix and, for the first time on the record, fabricates a looming darkness from his instrumentation. The song doesn’t exactly brood, but it does break up the monotony of his sentimental style. It’s aggravating that these songs, on a technical level, are quite good. Kenniff knows how to write, but he lacks the ability to write anything but the same kinds of songs. In small chunks Caesura is an inoffensive and relaxing record, but that is precisely its weakness. A little more honesty and spice would benefit the record a great deal: such additions would provide a depth and character that it desperately needs.

Caesura is available on Type
Samples available at Brainwashed

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