HELIGOLAND Heligoland (Calcium Chloride)
To borrow from Fred Schepisi's recent film "Last Orders", "Heligoland where the hell's that?". I was thrown off the scent by the cover photograph of a ludicrously oversized motorcycle apparently homebrewed from discarded tractor parts (a kind of Massey Davidson/Harley Ferguson hybrid) which had me expecting Heligoland to be some kind of deathly serious Nordic heavy metal band. Happily, the reality couldn't be farther removed.
Heligoland is the current tradename of Tim Friese-Green, whose status as an unofficial fourth member of Talk Talk coincided with that band's gradual, spectacular transformation from synth-pop also-rans to ambient soundscape sculptors, true Slartibartfasts of sound. This first eponymous long player was, so says the blurb, written on an island (location unspecified not the titular one, surely?) and recorded in an attic, features guest appearances by members of Catherine Wheel and The Dirty Three and was apparently 'dubbed from vinyl', which sounds like a fantastic idea, whatever it may mean practically.
Dismissive as Friese-Green might appear about his Talk Talk years (there are some pithy interviews archived on his website, www.heligoland.co.uk, including a priceless moment when a hapless inquisitor questions him about his involvement with The Wombles and Chris de Burgh!) it's immediately apparent from "Heligoland" that a substantial chunk of what made that band's later albums such a swirling, sensurround listening experience is also present here. He takes the loose, fluid structure of a Talk Talk song, stretching and contorting it to beyond breaking point - the ghostly, collapsing decadence of Big Star's battered but luminous "Third/Sister Lovers" album glows in these songs. And underneath it all is the kind of propulsive melodic gift that Delta are fortunate to call their own.
So, in invoking the spirit of the long-treasured music of three of my favourite bands, it's inevitable that "Heligoland" should register as the most audacious and astonishing album I've heard in ages. I'd have to reach back as far as Delta's still-shining debut "Slippin' Out" to match its soul-invading power. Listen to "Shock Treatment", for example, and revel in Friese-Green's falling-down vocals and the sloppy, lackadaisical melody (both substantial positives, in my opinion, in case you were wondering). Friese-Green refuses to discuss lyrics, but this song seems to display his writing at its least opaque: I'd decode it, incorrectly, no doubt, as being about some kind of pylon-based suicide bid. "Bluebird" is equally fabulous, especially the line "Say "Right on! Right on!"", delivered as a preacher-cum-proto hippie activist yet saturated in the artist's own peculiar English drawl. Finest moment is closer "The Kiss-Off", an awesome, sprawling, friendly monster, a huge, craggy outcrop of delicious, destroyed music and fantastical words ("the abstract side of town" where the hell's that?!) lashed together by Friese-Green's vocals, which might be technically disastrous but ooze atmosphere.
"Heligoland" doesn't end there. After a few minutes' pause up pops the most improbable version of "Purple Haze", with the riff wheezed out of a misfingered melodica. If it's a joke, it's very funny; if it isn't, it still aptly summarises Heligoland's otherness from conventional rock music.
The key question for Talk Talk junkies must be how "Heligoland" compares with Mark Hollis' solo venture. Whilst the latter was welcome but ultimately puzzling and frustrating, "Heligoland" is far closer to what might have been hoped or expected of "Mark Hollis", whilst also marking considerable progress from those marvellous late Talk Talk albums. If you have already fallen under their spell, you'll embrace the music of Heligoland wholeheartedly. It's the state of woozy, opiated, ambient, coruscating, organic, lo-fi art, a wonderful high watermark in what music can do and be.
HELIGOLAND Creosote & Tar (Calcium Chloride)
Having been completely bowled over by Tim Friese-Green's debut album as Heligoland, I set about investigating the rest of the Heligoland back catalogue. And here it is: "Creosote & Tar" is a four track 12" single originally released in 1997. Rather predictably it's, partially, at least, marvellous. The title track is another certified Heligoland classic whose absence on the album is a mystery not to be solved. A sweet pop song savaged by distortion, static and discordance, in the unlikely event that Kevin Shields ever built a steam engine it would sound like this. Awesome. No commercial potential at all.
"Dreaming Of Persephone" and "Blued" are the first disappointing Heligoland tracks I've encountered. They're not categorically bad, but sound a bit like mere collages of words, notes and sounds in search of melodies strong enough to bind them symbiotically together into something greater. The final track is "The Kiss-Off", presented in, as far as I can tell, an identical version to that featured on the album, which remains the best song I've heard this year. If you too have been mesmerised by the all-consuming greatness of Heligoland's album, "Creosote & Tar" is an essential next purchase.