Hey!Tonal US | chicago
Robots have a long way to go before reaching a level of intelligence comparable to that of humans. At the time of writing, you’d be lucky to see a robot walk on two legs, let alone travel through time to assassinate you. But even though science fiction is way off in its wild and sometimes edifying predictions, it doesn’t stop people like me from imagining a world in which artificial intelligences participate in many of the same activities usually held as the preserve of humankind. This is made easier when a band like Hey! Tonal creates music that seems to envision what would be produced by robots if they were ever to be instilled with emotion and taught how to play instruments.
An American band comprised of geographically scattered veterans of various post and math rock bands (including Sweep The Leg Johnny, Rumah Sakit, Joan of Arc and Storm and Stress), the aforementioned Hey! Tonal play a strain of instrumental rock on their debut album that isn’t simply angular in its riffs and melodies but ceaselessly right-angled. Their zigzagging patterns bring to mind a bunch of algorithms interfacing in the overheated depths of a computer’s soundcard, twirling around each other in squared-off spirals. They layer these patterns progressively, allowing them to lock into each other and build a momentum that carries the listener away into self-forgetfulness. And unlike some other bands of their ilk, they manage to infuse their music with a sense of groove and playfulness.
Take track 2, ‘Uppum.’ This song begins with bright and breezy guitar interplay coupled to some benign yet steady percussion. Around the four minute mark, however, a lull engagingly accelerates into energetic, syncopated repetitions underpinned by a downright funky, if eccentrically skewed, bass line. The band push and stretch this head-spinning chorus of metallic noise to delirious proportions, before it fades out into a meditatively hummed chant that closes the piece.
Repetition of melodic sequences is a tactic Hey! Tonal utilise to great effect at several points in the album, and coupled with the band’s unconventional use of scales the results are occasionally nothing short of hypnotic. ‘Skitch’ is a prime example of this, what with its relentless, mechanic drumming and twitchy, chiming guitars. This is probably the consequence of the music’s inherent resistance to traditional interpretation and rationalisation, which means that the only way to satisfyingly experience it is to consciously zone out and go with the flow.
There are moments though when the band do engage in something resembling ‘rocking out’, such as on the opener ‘If Flash Gordon was a Skater’ as well as on track 3, ‘’Kcraze,’ both of which feature a hard-edged and fierce guitar tone. But it really can’t stressed enough how strange and unfamiliar the music sounds most of the time. There are numerous instances when the band play what could be best described as live-IDM, sounding not too dissimilar from the likes of Autechre and Aphex Twin. ‘Carl Sagan is the Long Form of Bitchin’’ is especially steeped in the dark, ineffable ambience of such glitch-oriented electronica acts, and it’s also not too difficult to hear echoes of Fennesz, whom the band cite as an influence.
But even these touchstones fail to do justice to the span of Hey! Tonal’s stylistic reach, which at times feels just as much alien as it does robotic. What the band have done on their debut comes across as decidedly inventive and often mesmeric, and it will be very interesting to see if they can develop this kind of music and hone it even further in the future