Graded on a Curve:
Helen Money,

Cellist-composer Alison Chesley is known for her versatility as a collaborator, as she’s worked with significant names from the contemporary art-metal scene and those populating the avant-garde, to list just two locales in her creative trajectory. She also releases music under the moniker Helen Money, with her latest freshly available. Sans vocals as is her norm, it is a record reinforcing the breadth of her artistry while illuminating a background as a composer for film, theater and dance. Texturally rich while evoking a range of moods, Atomic is out now on clear vinyl, compact disc, and digital via Thrill Jockey.

Back in the 1990s, Alison Chesley paired up musically with guitarist-vocalist Jason Narducy as Jason and Alison. Chicago-based and described as essentially an acoustic affair, they released Woodshed on the Whitehouse label in ’94 prior to adding a rhythm section, plugging in and then adopting the name Verbow to a much higher profile through two albums for Epic, Chronicles in ’97 and White Out in 2000.

Alongside and after this period, Chesley played with Bob Mould both live and on record, as Verbow’s debut was produced by the ex-Hüsker Dü/ Sugar guitarist-vocalist. White Out featured production by Chicagoan Brad Wood, which made sense given the band’s tough but melodic approach, and was in solid synch with Mould, who they opened for; Narducy has played with him on stage and in the studio, as well.

But this review pertains to Chesley. Her outside productivity while Verbow was extant and then immediately after departing the group in ’01, specifically her extensive work as a studio musician, with much of it in connection to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, is what gets linked most directly to Helen Money, which began in 2007 with a self-titled CD on her Cellobird label.

Although she’s contributed to varied releases, e.g. The Sea and Cake’s Oui, Poi Dog Pondering’s Soul Sonic Orchestra, Scout Niblett’s This Fool Can Die Now, Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record, JD McPherson’s Signs and Signifiers and a bunch of records by Japan’s Mono, for a while she was kinda tagged as a metal cellist.

If this seems an odd combination, please understand that contempo art-metal is often texturally more in line with drone music than headbanging. Now, those familiar with the Helen Money discography, which continued with In Tune in 2009, also on Cellobird, Arriving Angels in 2013 on Profound Lore, a self-titled collab with Jarboe in 2015 on Aurora Borealis, and then Becoming Zero in 2016, her first for Thrill Jockey, surely comprehend her relationship to metal, as heaviness does abound. Furthermore, Sleep/ Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder plays on Arriving Angels and Becoming Zero.

For Chesley’s latest, Will Thomas contributes synthesizer, returning in that role from Becoming Zero (he also mixed much of Atomic) as Noah Leger steps in on drums. “Midnight” opens the record with swooping cello runs accompanied by a layer of soft synthetic distortion that implies a burning fire, and in turn spurs a cinematic quality that only increases with the expert chamber tension and partial release in the piece’s latter portion.

The track title “Understory” only strengthens her connection to soundtrack work and accompaniment, though it’s more appropriate to absorb it as extending from Becoming Zero as both records deal with Chesley and her sibling’s loss of both parents. Like its predecessor, Atomic is a highly personal record, consisting of all original compositions (her first three had a cover selection each that reinforces the breadth of Chesley’s thing, with her choices Neil Young, Minutemen, and Pat Metheny, respectively).

“Understory” also illuminates Chesley’s talent as a multi-instrumentalist, as she plays piano on the cut, and also multitracking, as she expertly interweaves cello lines, one of them dishing out waves of distortion that had me scrambling to see who was guesting on guitar. Piano is also heard in “Nemesis” as Thomas’ synth, occasionally subtle in Atomic’s scenario, takes on a larger role. It’s here that a midsection of cello atmospherics gets followed by an eruption of controlled string abrasion that, when paired with Leger’s input, delivers the record’s heaviest passage.

It’s as near to bruising post-industrial as it is to the metallic, though the piece should satisfy fans of both. The heaviness lingers in “Coil,” which nudges up against a rock sensibility before attaining an almost Godspeed-like aura. Nice. It’s in sharp but satisfying contrast to “Coppe,” where Chesley composes for harp, notably for the first time, though the instrument is played, exceptionally (but not especially floridly), by Carol Robbins.

Given the instrument’s higher profile in the current experimental/ u-ground scene, largely through her labelmate Mary Lattimore, being greeted by the harp is no great surprise; what’s impressive is how well it fits into the more contemplative side of Atomic’s scheme. From there, “Something Holy” combines the ethereal with sustained feedback tones, while “Brave One” swings back into rock-like territory through tiered cello parts, one rhythmic and the other melodic, as Thomas deepens the whole.

The concise “One Year One Ring” is also built around the electronic enhancing of Chesley’s work, though the piece is distinct in how she plucks rather than bows the strings. Thomas’ buzzing radiates sporadically. Piano returns for “Marrow,” initially tranquil before Leger emerges with a big beat followed by cello and bolder displays of electronics. “Redshift” brings back some of the chamber sensibility from early in the record and reconnects with introspective soundtrack-like moods.

The classical air (think Modernist) hits its apex in the closing piece “Many Arms,” and if “Nemesis” brings Atomic its heaviest stretch, the finale is no less powerful in its motions of beauty. Fittingly, electronics lend mysteriousness in the waning seconds. And it might seem the record’s title relates to the music’s crescendos of intensity, but it was actually inspired by Chesley’s reading of the Roman Humanists and Lucretius’ idea that the basis of the universe is in tiny particles that ultimately reinforce the connectivity of humankind.

In a time of severe but necessary isolation, this observation, coming after Chesley’s great personal loss, is especially valuable. Atomic reinforces universal interconnection, indeed.


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