Helium - Biography
It made sense when Mary Lou Lord left the Boston-based indie band Chupa in 1992 to follow her acoustic roots, because when Mary Timony, the founder of former punk band Autoclave, entered and Jason Hatfield left, the result was nothing if not electric. The remaining trio changed their name to Helium, and an intriguing brew of 90s indie rock, 70s glam, heavy guitar sludge and punky, girl-band attitude started to percolate. During their decade-long run, they proved themselves to be a singular and evolving outfit, eventually incorporating some of the more intriguing elements of folk and prog rock while maintaining their jagged aesthetics. The initial releases were a couple of raw 7-inches, “American Jean” (1992 Warped Records) and “Hole in the Ground” (1993 Pop Narcotic), followed by Pirate Prude (1994 Matador). This provocative EP showcases not only Timony’s ice-water vocals but also her confrontational lyrical content and penchant for violent, gothic love songs, like the morally ambiguous “Baby Vampire Made Me.” Clanging bass lines underpin a wall of guitar fuzz while Timony’s vocal soars over the top. Other tracks, like “XXX” and “000” are more droney and challenging but still powerfully pop oriented — it was a solid preview of what was to come.
In 1995 bassist Brian Dunton left Helium to be replaced by Ash Bowie, previously of Chapel Hill indie band, Polvo (his current project is called Libraness). The next release was another EP, the offbeat and slightly ethereal Superball (1995 Matador). The title track appears on the full-length LP of the same year, The Dirt of Luck (Matador), which sees a maturing in both the songwriting and in Timony’s vocal delivery. Liz Phair comparisons are inevitable, but Timony’s wide range and austere purity display a near-classic, authentic folkiness that creates an engaging effect when superimposed over these dark lullabies. The instrumentation is more diverse here as well, like the cheesy synths and keyboards enhancing Timony’s excellent guitar crunch in “Silver Angel” and the glockenspiel chiming underneath the fuzzy, conceptual groove of “Baby’s Going Underground.” This entertaining and energetic album is chock full of catchy riffs and heavy grooves, and the languid country feel of “Honeycomb” and minor-key balladry of “Comet #9” add complexity and variation. There’s plenty of sonic diversity to listen out for on this record, and Timony’s powerful, R-rated lyrics offer yet more to chew on.
An artistic turning point for Helium came with their next two releases, the ironically titled EP, No Guitars (1997 Matador) and a second LP, The Magic City (1997 Matador). The EP, of course, has scads of guitar on it -- some of the songs are even about guitars (see “The King of Electric Guitars”). It kicks of with a loungy, slide and Rhodes intro, but morphs into an electrifying groove reminiscent of The Cars or Gary Newman. The post-punk feel carries over to the LP, but the album sprawls into experimental prog rock unabashed, mythic, fantastical folk. This is without a doubt the band’s most expansive and engaging moment, with influences sprawling from eastern mysticism to Baroque pop. “Medieval People” is an explosive, experimental piece, even danceable, but dementedly so. “Ocean of Wine” is genuinely pretty, “Devil’s Tear” is catchy as sin, and the sing-songiness of “Ancient Cryme” offsets the punchiest bass riff ever. As a whole piece of work, the album is a triumph, and part of its success lies in that it’s firmly rooted in the 90s without sounding dated, which is in part due to the array of influences that mesh together brilliantly. After the band went their separate ways, Timony continued on to pursue a solo career and has since released four studio albums that carry the torch of Helium’s punk-prog-rock amalgam. Helium were a truly inspired band, but Timony’s vision and voice were what mainly drove the project, with songs that fearlessly chartered the territories of myth, modernity, violence and feminine power.