Sound — 8
The Helio Sequence mine from the same of the same wide-ranging influences as their musical counterparts in the Mercury Rev, matt pond PA and Wilco. Their past releases had the band experimenting with layers up on layers of distortion and delay but there weren't enough strong songs at the core of it. On Keep Your Eyes Ahead, it seems as though they've finally put as much time into crafting the songwriting as they have perfecting their sonic palette. Make no mistake, guitarist Brandon Summers still makes use of a wide scope of guitar pedals and effects. Reverb sodden guitars give way to meditative melodic keyboard assisted passages within the space of a song. But unlike most of their prior output, you'll walk away remembering more than just how "spaced out" the recording was. Songs like "Can't Say No" ooze with hook after hook and the Oregon duo sorely lacked them before. It wouldn't be out of the question to imagine some of these tracks getting airplay on more mainstream radio. Opening number, "Lately," with it's almost hymnal quality, could have even fit on U2's seminal masterpiece The Joshua Tree. They've really stepped into the big leagues with songs of that caliber.
Lyrics — 7
Much like everything else on Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the wordplay is also leaps and bounds beyond what the duo have done in the past. The emboldened lyrics fit around the aura of these compositions like a glove. The radiant "You Can Come to Me" calls out words of hope and undying support to a friend. The wave of positivity continues on the title track but this time it's backed by a pulsating rhythm put down expertly by Weikel. To round out the album, the blue mountain inspired sounds of "No Regrets" keeps the idealism flowing but this time the song fades out in a country sing-along. Deviating from the usually abstract lyrical ideas that many of their peers take could have been a clumsy move but somehow they pulled it off. Their directness is refreshing. It took guts for these guys to go out on a limb like this but the listener is better off for it.
Overall Impression — 8
Much like the transformation the Flaming Lips underwent on their breakthrough moment, The Soft Bulletin, The Helio Sequence finally sound confident in their own skin. This is an album of much more than mere atmosphere and guitar histrionics. I would go as far as to say that these songs would make for a fine all-acoustic release. It would be nearly impossible to have imagined their first three albums in this kind of setting. The production was handled by. Weikel and Summers and they do a wonderful job of keeping the instrumental layers controlled enough where they don't suffocate the vocal parts. Summer's vocals were even recorded in the living room of his north western apartment. This might be a contributing factor for the relaxed, lived in quality the vocal performance benefits from. It is great to see more bands trying this unorthodox approach on recent recordings. While the band doesn't shy away from their newly found pop tendencies on Keep Your Eyes Ahead, they don't forget to balance it out with gritty anthems like "Broken Afternoon." This acoustic lead exploration lends the album a reflective moment that suits the sequencing perfectly. To see a band get to this level of confidence in the span of one album is truly inspiring.