Hey!Tonal - Hey!Tonal

Ian Atherton 04/06/2009

Rating: 4/5

What do you call someone who hangs around with a group of musicians? A drummer.

How do you know when a drummer is at the door? He doesn't know when to come in.

How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb? None, they have a machine to do that now.

Drummers get a bum deal. The occasional visionary aside (Moon, Bonham, Baker), tub-thumpers are often overlooked and called upon to merely maintain a rhythm, though many secretly yearn to take a front seat.

Thank goodness then for the annoyingly punctuated Hey!Tonal, who won't like being called a 'supergroup', despite featuring members of Maps & Atlases, Joan Of Arc, Pinback, ZZZZ's, Storm & Stress, Talibam and Sweep The Leg Johnny.

The self-titled album is based around a session of thunderous beats played by Kevin Shea, on top of which various contributors added their parts one at a time from studios across North America. Mitch Cheney and Alan Mills continually manipulated and re-edited the results, interlocking guitar, drums, bass and occasional vocals with distortion, fuzz and electronic burblings.

This is all very interesting and groundbreaking of course, but the results are a mess, right? Strangely not - quite the opposite, in fact. The album is fearlessly experimental but beautifully cohesive, and could easily have been created by a group of real people jamming in a real room.

Opener Flash sets the scene - mathy beats and scratchy guitar build noisily over a few minutes before fading into curiously affecting Polyphonic Spree horn parps and heavily processed murmured vocals, backed with stop-start distortion and twinkling bells.

Uppum is more upbeat, a genuinely melodic squall that builds towards multi-tracked groans and gentle strumming. As with the rest of the album it's painstakingly produced, with shards of sound weaving a messy tapestry reminiscent of mid-90s supergroup Brice Glase, glitchy electronic experimentalist Fennesz. and contemporary noiseniks Health. Each track stretches across five or six minutes and takes many musical diversions, as different elements are emphasised, phased in and out, or dropped in unexpectedly. What could rapidly become annoying instead seems enjoyably unpredictable, and though at times it's cluttered and a little unfocused, it's better to have too many ideas than too few.

Though the most credit must go to the project co-ordinators Cheney and Mills, there's no doubt that the star of the show here is Shea. His ferocious beats underpin everything here, and though at times they're looped and distorted to within an inch of their lives, there's no mistaking the deft human touch lurking below. While the more hectic rhythms are technically impressive, many of the most inspiring moments are when he locks into a rolling groove, as on the ultra-heavy and the pounding Carl Sagan Is The Long Form Of Bitchin'.

This is stubbornly uncommercial stuff, art for art's sake, meticulously and lovingly put together, yet still clearly the product of a collective of talented and passionate musicians. While Shea's work won't stop the drummer jokes, it will certainly stand up as a grand example of how to get rhythm right.