When you hear the opening riffs to Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" in almost any movie set during the Vietnam War era, you know some serious shit is about to go down. That's a bit what it's like listening to the sixth release by experimental psych act Helvetia, based in Seattle, Wash., and Arcata, Calif. On The Lam (April 12, The Static Cult Label) is filled with slow builds that toss you into a blur of thrummy '90s guitar and echo-y vocals, bounce you across double-timed Billy Joel-in-his-prime piano or leave you skidding across the dirt in a minute-and-a-half-long track that disappears with an electronic tick-tick-tick. It's an intensely layered album that evokes Radiohead-like experimentation, Built To Spill-inspired arrangements and T-Rex-esque rock all helmed by a somewhat reticent rock star.
Helvetia is the name given to the "female personification" of Switzerland, the homeland of the band's multi-instrumentalist frontman, 35-year-old Jason Albertini. Albertini and drummer Canaan "Dove" Amber (a fellow Duster alum) have made up the core of the band since their 2006 debut, Clever North Wind. In the years since, Helvetia released more albums and opened for Built To Spill (Albertini spends time on the road with BTS running stage sound and members of BTS sometimes play with Helvetia). Albertini moved to Humboldt County to work in construction when he isn't touring with BTS and recently played drums with fellow Swiss band Disco Doom at SXSW. The change in geography--to an area he says has "beautiful mystic qualities"--was in some ways prompted by changes in Seattle itself.
"I wouldn't say it was a falling out with the city," Albertini said in a deep, softly accented voice. "I'm not from Washington and I think even though I'm fine with rainy weather, the weather may have had something do with it. It was just time to move on. I spent a lot of time growing up in California when I was a kid. Dove and I lived in San Jose. It was just time to try something new."
And technically, to try something old.
"[With On The Lam] I was trying to get back to a Nor Cal vibe," Albertini said. "All the music I did before I moved to Seattle was always really inspired by this area. I can't really read too much into it, but I definitely had that feeling of going back to Northern Cali, kind of hiding out, just trying to get myself straight."
Albertini and Dove "went into the woodshed" and began working on On The Lam. Albertini records at home and said that he would record a "whole bunch of stuff" and once he thought it was decent, he would call Dove and the two of them would re-record. It was a long process but the payoff was worth it. All 12 tracks on the album have unique qualities and each one stands out for a different reason: there's the '70s Paul Simon-sounding "Hustle & Sparrow," "Saucer of Dread," which is sweetly reminiscent of Built To Spill's "I Would Hurt a Fly," the guitar rattling "Bring Me The Knives" and the addictive, '80s-evocative, up-tempo, bouncy "Below the Salt" to name a few.
On The Lam is more melodically pop-like than previous Helvetia albums, but like in their previous releases, the lyrics don't follow a typical narrative. In "Below the Salt, Albertini sings, "Traveling backwards / with yourselves / right now, / The crowd / is making it awkward / for some / that's no choice / floating to the top again / pushing me out / just the same / it's serious / making it look good / I gotta get out."
It's not that Albertini doesn't have something to say, he's just a man of few words. That goes for interviews, too.
"I don't really particularly like to do interviews," Albertini said when asked why they seem to be few and far between . "I don't get asked a lot in the first place. But it's hard for me sometimes to articulate how I feel. You know, everyone struggles with that and I'm trying to put myself more out there. And we're a small band ... we do have a small pocket of fans throughout the country but we're pretty small. Maybe I just don't get asked. Actually, I'm kind of scared of interviews."
Albertini may not love being questioned, but his inhibitions don't extend to his song crafting. If you see Helvetia when they perform here this week—at Flying M Coffeegarage in Nampa on Wednesday, April 6, and Visual Arts Collective in Boise on Saturday, April 9—you'll know from the first few notes that you're in for something big.