Some albums ease you in gently with a soft touch but the self-titled inaugural album from HEY!TONAL starts as it means to go on with a battering landslide of sound that will clear your sinuses and ensure any tiredness will leave your body screaming. HEY!TONAL is a project led by guitarists and sound designers Mitch Cheney (Rumah Sakit, Sweep the Leg Johnny, Sick Room Records) and Alan Mills (Chiisai-oto, Burl). It was originally released in 2009 on CD but is now getting a vinyl release by label Computer Students who take design and presentation as seriously as they do the high quality of the music reproduction.
The HEY!TONAL project was original a concept called “Drummers’ Perspectives” that came through Cheney’s work in film and television where he began to swap out MIDI drum samples for guitar and dulcimer sounds. This is a reversal of the standard writing process which has melody drive the rhythm, and allowed the beats to be the catalyst for the melody. After meeting kindred spirit Mills, and drawing on Cheney’s experience with television editing, the two catalogued and manipulated sound in early experiments from 2006, and over time this eventually grew to include other collaborators such as Theo Katsaounis (Joan of Arc, Dead Rider), Dave Davison (Maps & Atlases), Kenseth Thibideau (Rumah Sakit, Sleeping People) and Julien Fernandez (Chevreuil).
Assuming that HEY!TONAL is a play on atonal (my education not going to waste here) it fits with elements of the music that feel like they have been built on shifting sands. I found my brain trying to grasp at a root note or impose a conditioned 4/4 beat on the Sturm und Drang of colliding drum patterns. There are times when guitar and drums pound like a Kango Hammer, ‘If Flash Gordon Was A Sk8r’ and ‘Kcraze’ and at other times the shifting rhythms are almost playful as the instruments act like ball bearings skittering on glass, ‘Uppum’, ‘Smarmy Faulkner’ or ‘Skitch’. The press release sums it up perfectly saying that the album is “full of delicate incongruities hidden in the music; happy accidents were meticulously given purpose during mixing, malleable drums and guitars intertwined with a myriad of improvised and shaped sounds. The overall impression is of some oblique explanation to an unsolved mystery”.
This isn’t music that rages against the machine, this is the machine raging, and I found the first listen all the way through challenging but rewarding. I sensed it would grow on me (which it did immensely) and the more time I spent with it, the more it gave up its secrets. And with its many oblique angles and omni-directional musical patterns I suspect that it would have been artist MC Escher’s favourite album.
HEY!TONAL on Instagram
Review by Paul F Cook