New Orleans electronic experimental artist swelo’s name has been in social media quite a bit lately, as indie music has taken notice of his soulful and minimalist take on the growing music-via-internet trend. His new album, Helvetica has gained him even more attention, as it takes a slower, more ambient angle to the unique beats he came to be known for on his previous endeavor, Escalator Music. Helvetica uses what is clearly a heavy R&B and hip hop influence in swelo’s musical lexicon to create something new and special, redefining both indie and EDM for a more chilled-out listener.
When swelo’s first album was released in early 2013, he became a sensation on the up-and-coming community sharing site, Reddit. Since then his indie star has been slowly rising and a second album has been hotly anticipated by Reddit users and off-the-beaten-path music fans. Escalator Music brought indie fans something new and interesting to a scene, which was getting a little saturated with acoustic guitars, Bon Iver, and Mumford & Sons copycats. swelo brought minimalist beats, soulful funk, and the use of old production techniques back into play a’la Chromeo. He then slowed everything down to a more roots rock feel, creating something new yet classic, experimental yet familiar, cerebral yet silly and fun.
swelo’s quirky sense of playfulness is in full swing on Helvetica, as his website and Bandcamp page are full of oddball quotes and non-sequiturs. The album, however, seems a little more serious and definitely less lyrical and hip hop than his previous ventures, as swelo heads more in the experimental direction with Helvetica. Both Escalator Music and his non-album singles, Trust Me Dude, You’ll Get It and She Don’t Know Me have a heavy dose of rap and hip hop influence, but on Helvetica there is almost no rap, save on the track #bangers, which may or may not be intended to be ironic. The tone and timbre of Helvetica are much more ambient and electronic, and swelo seems to swap his string bass for a midi, his funk for swooning EDM.
The move towards more experimental and ambient sounds does not mean Helvetica is without soul, however, as the composition of each melody is very emotive and sometimes even peaceful. The vocals, when there are any, are beautiful and heartfelt. There is a clear balance in both the album and its individual songs, which can sometimes get lost in translation when artists try to play around with new sounds. Many often can go the way of Philip Glass and Frank Zappa and just make music that is weird for the sake of weird. With Helvetica, the listener will get the impression that the album is to be enjoyed, not just thought about and picked apart for its wacky and wonderful experimental nature.
swelo’s main vocation is not music. He is a high school math teacher in his native New Orleans, and this could explain somewhat the way he puts his tracks together, especially on the new album. They may sometimes sound chaotic, but dig a little deeper and it is plain to see there is a clear order to each beat on the album. The title track, for example, seems to be almost algorithmic; a math problem that tells a computer to produce bleeps and bloops at the appropriate times to create a song. It is still a very warm track, however, as soothing oversamples and an emotive vocal are brought in over top of the electronic track to soften and make a real listenable piece of music.
The application of math to songwriting should not be seen as something new or novel. The analysis and connection of mathematical formulae to music goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Pythagoras, and has been studied and discussed ever since. What is new about Swelo is the ability to acknowledge and use the math of music, and then smooth it out into an ambient indie symphony on Helvetica. The funk and raw power of hip hop are also still present, yet more subtle on this album as swelo plays with different algorithms and charms the listener with pretty melodies. It all fits together like a quadratic equation around which a student may have done a pretty filigree doodle.
Escalator Music became Bandcamp’s most downloaded album in August 2013, which exemplifies not only the power of Reddit, but also the ability of swelo and his unique brand of indie to rise to the top of such a platform. swelo soft-pitched a piece of music into the indie scene via the up-and-coming site, and it took off from there. Labels and networking were not needed, and swelo did not have time for that. Now that he has built a following who understand what he’s trying to do, swelo can experiment and tweak his sounds to his heart’s desire. In the new age of information and music production, the methods by which music is made and distributed necessarily needs to change, especially when it comes to fringe genres. swelo has done indie the right way in this new age, using his understanding of technology and obvious talent to get listeners excited about his projects. Helvetica is a testament to how far art, music and information can travel with just one upload.
Both Helvetica and Escalator Music are available to stream and purchase on swelo’s Bandcamp site, listed below in the sources. Each track on the new album is one dollar, but Helvetica in its entirety is available via Bandcamp’s “name your own price” option, another music innovation of the new indie age.
Review By Layla Klamt