HÆLOS began life in the public eye with one of the modern music business’ time-honored tropes: the out-of-nowhere, background-less single. The decision to release “Dust” with minimal biographical information was not a cunning marketing strategy, however – the then-trio of Lotti Benardout, Arthur Delaney, and Dom Goldsmith was simply a self-described “production band” who decided to put out some material.
Regardless of release strategy, “Dust” attracted interest from listeners and labels alike. Taking cues from the spacious, R&B-influenced indie pop of London Grammar and The xx while adding dark trip-hop atmospheres and a sense of widescreen drama, it established the blueprint for the band’s debut full-length, Full Circle, which arrived in early 2016 on Matador. Now the newly-minted quartet (with the full-time addition of touring member Daniel Vildósola) is back with Any Random Kindness (out May 10 via Infectious) – a beautiful, if uneven, step forward.
HÆLOS’ studio chops are unimpeachable. Any Random Kindness is rich with production detail and bursting with texture: the creaky synth and live bass sounds on “Buried in the Sand”; the swelling pads on “Empty Skies”; the underlying lived-in crackle of “Kyoto,” and tiny Whammy-pedal pitch-shifting guitar snippets of “Last One Out (Turn the Lights Off).” It sounds great on headphones, where listeners can get lost in the expert flourishes of sound and sense of cinematic grandeur.
It also makes for a fun game of Spot the Influence. HÆLOS have never been particularly concerned with disguising their reference points – the aforementioned hint of The xx with its constant female/male vocal interplay, bits of Massive Attack’s and Morcheeba’s soul and R&B leanings, and an unmistakable sense of late-90s, early-00s dance music are still here.
But despite some inadvisable choices (of all the Katy Perry songs to borrow from, is the vocal hook from “E.T.,” which appears in slightly altered form on “Boy / Girl,” the best option?), Any Random Kindness introduces new, intriguing colors to their sonic palette: the glassy, FKA Twigs-esque abstractions mixed with a Burial-referencing 2-step beat on opener “Another Universe”; the “It Takes Two” sample on “End of the World Party”; the lonely, smooth downtempo pop of Dido augmented with Beth Orton-style folksy acoustic guitars on “Deep State”; there are even several references to the revered studio sculptors in Radiohead, whose fingerprints are everywhere, from the nervous energy and “In Limbo”-esque electric piano textures on “Buried in the Sand” to the combination of an “Everything in Its Right Place” keyboard riff and “Pyramid Song” strings on “Kyoto” and the analog synth break on “ARK.”
New tonal choices serve to heighten the pure drama of the band’s post-apocalyptic lullabies – it is truly a lovely album in terms of pure sound. But for all its breakbeats and harmonies and carefully considered touches, Any Random Kindness can get a little too mired in the details. Eight of its 11 songs clock in at over five minutes in length, and while each bursts with ideas, the album can feel like a slog to sit through once its initial shine wears off. Bookended by its two longest tracks – “Another Universe” and “Last One Out (Turn the Lights Off)” – Any Random Kindness too often succumbs to a preoccupation with surface-level gleam when judicious editing might have refined its impact.
Despite its faults, Any Random Kindness is a definite step forward from Full Circle. Its highs – the Sirius XMU-ready “End of the World Party,” their soulful approximation of all-time classic Massive Attack tune “Unfinished Sympathy” with “Empty Skies,” and negative space ballad-turned-Jamie xx raver “Happy Sad,” among others – mean this is an often-compelling listen. HÆLOS’ sense of the cinematic, studio acumen, and skillful influence-picking is on full display here. While their skills are not always deployed in the most powerful way, Any Random Kindness is a sophomore album to build on. Here’s to a more coherent third album – and an enjoyable step forward in the interim.
Words by Andrew Ledford