Somwhere in the shadowy forest behind the broken-down big-top, something is stirring…
a six-legged beast, shuffling and grunting toward the faded carnival lights… it reaches the edge of the circle of caravans, rears its three heads, and reveals itself to be… a psychotic cabaret troupe.
North Carolinian twisted miscreants, the Hellblinki Sextet, have already made a name for themselves in the darker circles of the underground. Now streamlined to simply Hellblinki, due to what can be euphemistically termed a personnel reshuffle, they are determined to continue walking their crooked path as the most bizarre power trio ever known.
Extracting the basic elements from the Old, Weird America, and splicing it with the darker side of European folk music, they have created some manner of parallel gothic tradition for the hyperactive and unhinged. Now, they return with their fourth album, whose deranged title These Bubbles Come From Ants, merely hints at the realms of outlandish whimsy within.
some manner of parallel gothic tradition for the hyperactive and unhinged
Over kittle more than 40 minutes the bewildered listener is bombarded with Weillian fairground delusions, 60’s-style psych-pop sent from space, the kind of comic arias that would drive Gilbert and Sullivan to hysterics, sinister horror-prog, skewed blues, southern-style slide-rock and b-movie ambience aplenty (you’ve just gotta love them Theremins). Oh, and nursery rhymes, too…
Suffice to say, Coldplay fans need not apply- don’t be fooled by the nursery rhymes, they’re more likely to exacerbate bed-wetting than cure it. Yes, it’s odd, but, for the main part, refreshingly so. Of course, this doesn’t answer the most pertinent question- is it any good? Well…
I’ll resolve that issue in good time. First, let’s break it down into its composite parts and see just what makes these lunatics tick. The best place to start, I suppose, is the beginning.
more likely to exacerbate bed-wetting than cure it
Opening track ‘Bubbles’ is a brittle, polka-powered foray into some rather Grimm territory, with ringmaster and head Blinki Andrew Benjamin indulging in some creepily-croaked spoken-word reveries involving broken objects and body parts, bloody stains, mortality and mentality.
Second track ‘Sanjula’s Junk’ couldn’t be more different, flitting between tinny toy-keyboard pop and banjo-bedecked country, allied with backing vocals that sound like someone impersonating a trumpet. Before you even have a chance to acclimatise yourself to this side of their oeuvre, they’re off onto another tangent, with the operatic oompah of ‘Happy Wake-Up’, showcasing the classically-trained soprano of Valerie Meiss.
Though you can’t help but admire their versatility and adaptability, Hellblinki rarely seem to settle on any one thing for long, showing symptoms of some sort of musical multiple-personality disorder. You could never accuse them of inducing boredom, but, at the same time, you might perhaps conclude that stylistic coherence isn’t really their strong suit.
When they hit their crooked stride, they do it admirably. The sinister slide-guitar polka/blues/psychobilly of ‘Don’t Go Down To The Woods Tonight’ suits Benjamin’s cracked croak perfectly. The 60’s-flavoured organ-driven ‘Morning Break’ possesses a lazy swagger and some spacey keys effects, ‘Breaking Everything’ is a wonderfully wonky waltz, and the pump n’ grind of ‘Rust’ is fantastically over-the-top.
They head in some intriguing directions, and it seems there’s very little they won’t try their hand at. The near 9-minute epic ‘Ants For Now’ is an exercise in spooky drones and eerie piano chimes, underpinning Meiss’ ethereal wail, before exploding into a tumult of tribal drums and lonesome trumpet. Unfortunately, it’s overlong, and rather directionless, but you can’t fault them for giving it a go.
you can’t help but feel like they’re laying on the theatricality a tad too thick
Sometimes, though, you can’t help but feel like they’re laying on the theatricality a tad too thick. To put it more bluntly, they are often weird for weird’s sake. At several junctures they come across as no more than a bunch of overgrown kids let loose in an old-fashioned music shop. Their predilection for nursery rhymes, though anyone can appreciate the intent of creep-ifying them, is, well, irritating, to be frank. ‘Itsy’ a throwaway interpretation of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’, and the closing ‘Boat’ is a seemingly endless multi-layered round of ‘Row, row, row your boat…’ It’s an almost impossible challenge to listen to it right through to the end.
You can easily tell from this album that they must be amazing live, channelling all their melodramatic histrionics into a visual accompaniment to their songs. On record it can occasionally seem a little grating, but I’d imagine this band thrive on stage, rather than in the studio.
That, in essence, is the issue with this album. Though they are talented, exciting, experimental and intense, Hellblinki’s schizoid gear-changes don’t make for a consistent album. As a band, though, you can see they aren’t bound by the same limitations as most acts, and, provided they can focus their embarrassment of ideas, will always be worth paying attention to.
These Bubbles Come From Ants is out now on Weirdhead Publications