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The Point of No Return

EP Review

The Point of No Return by Helsinki Project

Author: Cocaine for Toothaches

 

 

The Final Frontier     

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”


Carl Sagan

 

The Point of No Return, the instrumental, electronic, multi-song debut for Irish artist Helsinki Project, might be about space.  I actually don’t know, I really have no idea if the artist had an overarching theme in mind when single-handedly creating literally every aspect of this project.  But as I started listening, and really started sinking into the textures, I was able to come up with my own story.  It’s not my place to lay that out here, although my own concocted narrative will necessarily infect my notes that follow.  However, I believe that’s a big charm of this five-track EP:  to allow the listener to get lost in a universe that has both form and emptiness, which can set up to tell fascinating tales, if only the listener were to indulge.  And indulge one should, for how rewarding the tale when set to such a fantastic and open soundscape!  Another interesting note is that even though this is an ambient and instrumental oeuvre, the runtimes for the first four tracks are all under five minutes, so the listener’s attention is better-kept and whatever story is imagined moves along at a better pace.

 

The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
Carl Sagan

 

“We Could Have Done Better”

Space piano, from the infinite beyond, the depths of the eternal nothing.  Piano notes that reflect the stars alight.  A drone synth, the background radiation of the heavens.  A pulsing waveform, subtle, formless yet unmistakable.  A kick drum with no attack, just the heartbeat of time picked up on an array of X-ray telescopes, serves to focus the lens.  A celestial marriage of atmosphere and rhythm, ambient and pulse, nebulae and definition.  Yet the observatory falls behind the planetary umbra, and the rhythm is gone.  We are returned, left once again to ponder the vast emptiness.

I love the way the depths of the universe are depicted here.  Starting from drops rippling through the limitless pool of space, and eventually finding form.  A chord pattern emerges, but it never tends to go quite where I predict, which to me is deeply satisfying.  Everything (apart from that muffled kick drum) is drenched in reverbs of seemingly endless tails, tails that swirl through the cosmos.

 

“Heartbeat”

A faint, broken transmission from depths.  Then a warbled synth enters, eerily reminiscent of the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s ‘No Quarter,” but just for two notes.  The sound is a bit denser here.  Brass washes over, and we are firmly in 70’s/80’s sci-fi movie score territory.  I can definitely visualize this scene in my head, the music lays everything out so beautifully.  At 1:42 the namesake kick starts and form returns, the layers build, intensity crescendos.  The action on the cerebral silver screen quickens, but only temporarily.  A breath is taken, the lights dim, the heart rate recovers.  Endocrine function returns to normal, and we peek back out into the noir beyond.

This piece comes across as particularly evocative because of the way dynamics are used—they’re set forth much more akin to what a classical composer would do, rather than what a modern pop producer would.  It’s not just just building layers, but it’s also volume control, and it’s more gradual than modern production in order to really squeeze an emotional response from the listener over a more extended period of time.  Yet this is still all achieved in a very reasonable 3:45 runtime.

 

“The Calm & The Storm”

This song starts serenely enough again, which turns out to be deceitful.  Reverberations again envelop the soundscape.  They don’t seem to ever trail off into nothing, but eventually they must.  But there’s this build, ominous in its innocuousness.

And then

What could only be described as a mechanical infestation sweeps in and takes control, and in no subtle way.  The way I visualize it, I imagine the scene towards the end of Matrix Revolutions with the sentinels just swarming everywhere causing mayhem and destruction.  It’s a twist I didn’t expect in an up-to-this-point atmospheric album.  Accompanied by a full drumset (albeit blown out with the sonic head chopped off) and industrial style guitar (I think, but the swarm is all-encompassing).  It’s really very intense, especially in the context of everything else.

And then there’s a break.  Finally a chance to collect thoughts and figure out what just happ…BUT NO, THE BREAK IS ONLY TWO BEATS LONG and we’re right back into the storm.

Pounding relentlessly, a tempest/invasion/battle/earthquake/supernova imploding/I don’t know what’s going on here but it will hurt tomorrow.

*if there is a tomorrow*

And then it’s over.  Barely a whisper as the dust clears.  I don’t know if we even survived.

 

“Horizon”

The starlit piano returns.  A foreboding bass.  Minor chords in a minor key.  The frenetic ride-or-die pace of “The Calm & The Storm” has been left behind, already a distant memory.  A couple spare, lonely, standout major tonalities (especially at 3:41) are the only hints that whatever happened in the last song maybe wasn’t the total end of everything.  But they only last for a few seconds before we’re back at the unsettling sonorous place.

Interesting piece, this.  There are plenty of echo and spatial effects to color all the non-bass instruments, as before.  The piano is given a majestic sound not only by the atmospherics but the stately part it plays.  A kick drum comes in but it plays a stuttering rhythm (specifically dotted eighth-dotted eighth-eighth note rhythm) when it seems this, of all the pieces, would have a much “straighter” rhythmic feel.  The effect is that this piece has a little more motion than expected.  Nothing jarring, barely noticeable, but just a touch, to where the listener instinctively knows even if they’re not conscious of it.

 

“Into The Unknown”

Weightless.  Endless.  Limitless.  Formless.

The slightly-more-epic-length-piece to close the album.  Helsinki Project goes all-in on deep atmospheric world-building here.  There’s no rhythm or percussion, although there is an underlying time (if not pulse).  This song is really meant to carry the listener away into the great beyond (or into the unknown, as the title suggests).  A couple heavily filtered, affected, and modulated synths are all that is required to paint this picture.  Wherever we were, that place and time is now far behind.  Only a memory, it served to scour out a place in the tangible universe.  But whatever that place was, for all the glory and triumph, it is but a fraction of a dot.

 

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”


Carl Sagan

 

Helsinki Project informed me that he did everything on this album—recording, mixing, mastering, even the meticulous cover art.  For that he is to be commended.  I did not find fault with the technical aspects of the recording:  nothing jumped out as sounding “wrong” or out of place, and the overall sonic palette is natural, not over-hyped.

I immediately enjoyed hearing The Point of No Return from the outset.  As soon as I put it on I started building my own narrative, my own universe, my own reality in the context of the music.  I believe this is because the songs here not only are ordered and structured along a vaguely recognizable (yet also unique) path, but the balance between form and formless seems to be just right.  The formless lets the mind wander to emotions and dreams, and form gives rise to events and story development.  These days I’m rarely inspired by music to go this deep into imagination, so it was really fun to be able to do that with this sonic companion.  If you’ve been searching for a sonic world that allows for imagination yet doesn’t drown with immense length or endless loops, I implore you to look no further.

The Point of No Return Releases on December 9th 2022- You can pre-save HERE

 

You can find Helsinki Project here:

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About the author:  Coke has been around music a long, long time.  As a child in a family of musicians and in-and-around a family-owned studio in the 1980’s, he has seen the ups and downs of the music scene and lifestyle.  He plays/has played several instruments including piano/keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, and even dabbled on low brass and drums for a bit, as well as being a bang-average vocalist.  Coke studied (and won departmental awards in) composition, theory, and classical guitar performance during undergraduate work, as well as taught private guitar lessons for children and adults.  He spent ten years (up until the pandemic) as a superstar guitarist/bassist/musical director in the CCM world, before crashing down to earth, humbly surrendering all that non-existent fame and fortune for the quiet life. 

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