Has there ever been a genre name that sounded more eager to be shoved into a locker than math rock? Even the bands who spearheaded the sound—Polvo, Don Caballero, Ruins—distanced themselves from the term, rejecting the cold, dispassionate calculations that it conjures. Though legions of groups have wheeled out odd meters and looping pedals as if they were performing parlor tricks, those that transcended simple gimmickry tapped into something rawer and deeper. The bands that made the sound exciting in the first place are those who forced you to stop counting time altogether.
Sacramento’s Hella miraculously pulled this off by taking their calculus to its most extreme endpoint. They may have been the nerdiest band of them all: When they formed, guitarist Spencer Seim was in another group dedicated to playing Nintendo covers, while Zach Hill had dropped out of high school to play drums for as much as seven hours a day. Technical complexity was essential to their experimental style of noise rock, but it wasn’t the goal; Hella’s music followed a stream-of-consciousness logic, apparently spontaneous in spite of its intense choreography. The product of two California boys taking cues from Zeppelin, Zappa, and Hendrix, their music refracted vintage rock lore through a skater outcast mindset, all brewed in the cauldron of ’90s DIY. Together they created something that sounded like the platonic ideal of what math rock could be, while nevertheless existing in a brain-rewiring universe all its own.
The band came about by accident. Their high school quartet Legs On Earth fell apart after their lead vocalist fell into heroin addiction, and Seim and Hill realized they weren’t going to be able to find any other musicians to play the kind of music they were envisioning. Slowly the two of them oriented their songs to be played by just a guitarist and drummer. Seim would double-tap his basslines while Hill searched for what he called “invisible pockets”—intervals he could reorganize his rhythms around to create new patterns that wouldn’t make sense in a normal meter. Their debut, Hold Your Horse Is, was a deliriously adventurous hybrid of punk and prog that thrashed with playful violence. Though later dalliances with OutKast-style double albums and expanded lineups demonstrated the band’s restlessness, Hold Your Horse Is remains the most thrilling snapshot of Hill and Seim’s frantic, far-out chemistry.
Kill Rock Stars has remastered and reissued the album to celebrate its 21st birthday, with the band’s original three-track label demo included as an extra 7"—a charmingly scrappy snapshot of an ambitious young duo working out its sound in the garage. The album has lost none of its power: When the Game Boy menu music of “The D. Elkan” first slams into “Biblical Violence,” Hill’s snares come crashing down like hail shattering through a sunroof. As Seim nimbly sprinkles triplets up and down the fretboard, Hill tosses grindcore blast beats and jazzy cymbals together as if they were always meant to be complementary flavors. In these songs, the guitarist’s and drummer’s roles are reversed, with Seim’s spidery riffs acting as a grounding agent for Hill to batter his instrument to kingdom come. The timbres of the drumming are as dazzling as the speed—utilizing custom-fitted pieces of trash and metal appliances in addition to his worn-out gear, Hill’s sound is coarse and rich, each snare hit colliding with such scalding power that listening to it for too long can start to make you sweat.
Hill sought to create a visual experience with his playing, both in his use of everyday objects and in the sheer neighbor-waking force of his attack (he broke so many drumsticks during sets that he once planned to build a bed frame out of the splinters). Hold Your Horse Is is surprisingly textured for an album that mostly consists of just two instruments, and the new remaster fills out the bassier end nicely. One doesn’t nod along to the beats so much as chase after them, and at a certain point all you can do is surrender to the endless churn. Still, as dense as the duo’s compositions are, they flow naturally. In “Republic of Rough and Ready,” Seim and Hill approach their riffs as if they were taking turns loosening a rope, then snapping it tight again; “Better Get a Broom!” seems to wobble in and out of time, like a spinning plate about to topple over.
Though it’s hard to ignore Hill as the star of the show, Seim deserves equal credit for his inventively odd tunings and twisty playing. Take “1-800-Ghost-Dance,” whose midsection descends into a dizzying whirlpool of notes swirling and sloshing against one another, or the stern central riff of “Republic of Rough and Ready,” which blows wide open in the bridge as he taps out a melody that rains down like fighter jets careening through the sky. The tracks on Hold Your Horse Is work precisely because they’re actually songs, complete with arcs and recurring themes and, above all, feeling. As precise as Hella could be, the driving principle of these tracks is the messy, human intensity behind them—a frenzied conviction that seemed to find the kinship between the chaos of John Zorn, the electricity of Melt-Banana, and the bugged-out lunacy of their beloved Primus.
Hella’s legacy is so singular, it’s all the more remarkable that Hill went on to have a second life as the percussive muscle behind Death Grips. In both bands, Hill has communicated a very specific language—one speaking directly to a generation slowly becoming more plugged into the mainframe—of tension and release. Though some may have accused Hella of being too intellectualized, or impossible to headbang to, watching live videos from those early shows paints a different picture: scrawny kids giddily vibrating in place, shaking their bodies as best they can to indecipherable beats. In eschewing conventional time signatures, Seim and Hill tapped into an unfolding tesseract of rhythm, as if imparting to listeners that the best way to move is to just let their own internal pulse take over, and let that incalculable energy guide the way.
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