The problem with reviewing material in print is, every once in a while something comes across that escapes definition. When Twisted Helices' demo tape originally reached me (writing for SKiDFiLTH fanzine, an early predecessor of what has become 816), I must admit I had no idea what I was listening to. It seemed as though someone's plastic Casio keyboard had crossed wires with an old computer voicebox, took on its own life and tried to produce some early Devo outtakes that had been remixed by the Residents. Maybe.
A short time later, a CD arrived to my address. For some time, I stared at an octagon-shaped CD case, of which the cover artwork looked like an old chemistry textbook with a large graphic of some DNA strands bent like a Slinky into a biochemical arch. At least, that's what I'm going to describe it as. Chemistry buffs who can explain to me exactly which chemical or protein is on the cover are welcome to send in the complete details for anyone who feels they need the entire truth on this level. For me, it was reminder of a class I barely passed in college.
Well, and I suppose my feelings for chemistry coursework are exactly how I feel about the music of Twisted Helices. That is, I am absolutely fascinated with the concept and totally drawn to the idea of it, but when it comes down to the line, I start feeling overwhelmed with confusion and feel as though my brain has also bent over into a Slinky-toy arch. I become restless. I become paranoid. And yet, I have a fond affection which keeps me trudging through it and enjoying the hysteria of knowing absolutely nothing about what I am doing.
Let me try a different approach: There are about 40 to 120 minutes that every acid user fears. That is, the moment when the strictnine wrenches their stomach and the bluntness of reality becomes a bittersweet combination of absurdity and absoluteness. And, yet, after all the aches and mind-bending bruises, people find themselves drawn back to the experience. Enter Twisted Helices. Abusively addictive - absurdly realistic and confusingly abstract, together at once.
"Kitchen sink," self-describes Ram Samudrala of his one-man show Twisted Helices' sound. "Twisted, self-indulgent, avante-garde, experimental, and pop-noise... Essentially, it has gone from fooling around and doing weird stuff to being systematically twisted. The later songs are based more on the Residents, King Crimson, Syd Barrett, Kraftwerk, [and] John Cage. You know, deliberate experimentation with atonality and weird time signatures, etc.
"I love the Residents. As I've said... they've been a tremendous influence on me, especially in terms of vocal processing. In fact, on the cover of Love is a Weed (a Camper Van Beethoven cover from an upcoming compilation), I used an echo flanger to process my voice which was allegedly once used by the Residents to do the same thing."
The Residents are probably the key word here, as far as parallel sound goes. Of course, Ram's vocals in Twisted Helices strays from the bizarre toystore vocals of the Residents - to some degree. Perhaps one of the most common comparisons to Twisted Helices' music is that of freak-pop superstars Ween.
"Ween has been a huge influence on the way I make music," says Ram. "They were the ones who inspired me to do it on my own, and do it was a 4-track. My earlier stuff is more Ween influenced than some of the later stuff, which I think has headed in the way of old progressive/electronic noise. You should be able to, if you listen carefully, hear a lot of pitch-shifting, and other 4-track tricks, on my songs that I first picked up listening to Ween releases."
Tracks like Tick in My Head and I Saw Kobain in a 7-11 show off the combined influence of both bands with their primitive production, heavy on experimentation. While tracks like Fur Elise is thickened by sound processing and flange effects that soar between speakers and then cut out and make room for Rap of the Morons, a quickly changing electro-creep-freak track with some subtle pop influence - but mainly professes a chaotic progression of deconstructionist keyboards filtered through a would-be Down in It mockery of the original Nine Inch Nails hit.
"Alternative" music and the "underground" music scene has mainly been bought out before the start of decade, which has left little to no space for music that can't be pre-packaged into simple categorical boxes. With such a non-presence of freedom to the underground or supposed "alternative" scene, what kind of future could we expect from the twisted mind of Ram Samudrala? One might expect slicker production and more commercial songwriting to come from an artist who has created a somewhat scene of his own through internet promotion and contact.
"I have been working on new material," suggests Ram, "and you should see more pretentious songs that are upwards of 10 minutes on the next album, which will be probably recorded all at once."
So much for commercial marketing of the Twisted Helices' future. I guess we're in store for more mind-twisting experimentation and intrigue. Keep in touch, Ram. We're wrenching our brains out again, only to soak more back in!