I love departure albums. There’s just something beautiful to me about artists following their muse wherever it takes them, regardless of how many supposedly loyal fans they piss off in the process. And as a listener, artists that are always growing and evolving are much more interesting to listen to than ones that simply make the same kind of songs over and over again.
This love of departures and change may be part of why I have such a deep love for Helium’s 1997 album “The Magic City”. Calling it a departure would be an understatement: It’s a journey into a completely different universe.
Helium made a fairly minor name for themselves in the mid-90s with an angular brand of indie rock led by Mary Timony, whose lo-fi guitar heroics and witty, feminist-slanted lyrics gave the band a unique edge. However, Helium never quite caught on with a large audience, partly because they weren’t quite as aggressive as the media-hyped riot grrrls and weren’t as accessible as other female-fronted alternative rock bands of the time. Their first full length, 1994’s “The Dirt of Luck” showcased the sound that Helium is still largely known for — part Sonic Youth, part Pavement, part riot grrrl.
Having gained a decent following with that album and some EPs, Helium returned in 1997 with a different sound entirely, as they combined the lo-fi indie rock of the 90’s with progressive rock from the 70’s. The first hint of it was the excellent “No Guitars” EP released earlier in the year, and it culminated with “The Magic City.” The simple guitar rock of “The Dirt of Luck” was replaced by more complex songs that featured a wide array of instruments, including harpsichord, sitar, and keyboards. Gone were the biting, feminist themes, replaced by lyrics that are more indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien than Kathleen Hanna, with references to dragons, medieval people, and other fantasy themes.
“The Magic City”, like many departure albums, sounds horrific on paper. But of course, it’s all in the execution, and part of what makes “The Magic City” such a brilliant album is how fully realized Timony’s vision is. For the duration of the album’s 52 minute run time, you really feel like you’re in some sort of magic, medieval city (there’s even an instrumental song called “Medieval People” that comes complete with bomb sounds).
I can only imagine how baffled Helium fans were when they first listened to “The Magic City”, and, to an extent, I think many of them still are. But part of the album’s greatness is just how different it was from everything else at the time, and how nothing has come particularly close to it since (although The Decemberists album “The Hazards of Love” comes to mind). This is a completely unique, brilliantly quirky album that is often beautiful and dark at the same time.
It doesn’t start off too strange, as the opener “Vibrations” is probably the song that most resembles the old Helium on the album. But after that, things get weird in a hurry. “Leon’s Space Song” is one of the best songs of Helium’s career, with references to riding rainbow dragons culminating in a trippy instrumental coda. “Ocean of Wine” is slightly more straight-forward rock, but continues with the fantasy lyrics and proggier sound.
There’s a wide array of sounds on “The Magic City”, which helps the band paint an entire picture of their medieval fantasy land. “Revolution of Hearts Parts 1 & 2” is the closest Helium comes to directly channeling the 70’s progressive rock they were influenced by, complete with arena rock guitars and a six minute instrumental freakout. While Helium had previously sounded brash and abrasive, songs like “Lullaby of the Moths” and “Cosmic Rays” are more fragile and beautiful, with swooping string sections that sound like they belong in a movie climax.
While “The Magic City” certainly seemed like a crazy idea, the band is able to realize their ambitions and craft an album that sounds different from everything else, but at the same time is identifiably Helium. Like with all progressive rock, there was the risk of sounding over-indulgent, but for the most part the array of instruments and quirky sounds are vital for creating the vision that Mary Timony had in mind. Helium split after “The Magic City”, with Timony continuing to make weird fantasy music on solo albums like “Mountains” and “The Golden Dove”. But she was never as quirky, compelling, and mysterious as she was here.
In many ways, the album is a lost indie classic: It doesn’t show up on critics “best of” lists and even among Helium fans it is likely their least popular work. But for the small group of people who are able to find the album and appreciate what it’s trying to do, “The Magic City” is a classic album that has few peers in indie rock when it comes to its ambition and scope. It’s a massively underrated album by possibly the most under appreciated bands of the 90’s, and is very much worth seeking out.