Matt Hill, aka Umberto, has been making eerie, haunting electronic noise now for the better part of our current decade. Capturing the queasy vibes of 60s psychedelics and 70s Giallo into his own musical prism, Umberto played a big part in helping to create the imagined soundtrack universe. Ranging from subtle techno pulses, to dense synthesizer pieces, to airy(dare I say romantic) folks-y interludes, an Umberto album captured a vibe and an era in the course of a five minute track. His last album, 2016s Alienation, leaned heavily on pastoral and slightly psychedelic pieces that felt like an LSD-soaked walk through fields of daisies and blood-soaked tunics.
Hill and Umberto have returned with the space-y and dreamy Helpless Spectator. An album filled with songs that seem to ascend into the atmosphere as you listen, Helpless Spectator seems to unveil itself in slow motion with ambient textures and swaths of gauzy delights. With each listen you become more enthralled and engaged with the album’s world.
Helpless Spectator is pulled from the Julian Jaynes book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The idea Jaynes’ was attempting to prove was that our consciousness has no more control over what we do that the whistle of a train has over the mechanics of its engine. In other words, people are gonna people. This idea fascinated Hill, so in that mind frame he created the album before you. Gentle noise that hides an undertone of darkness and helpless abandon.
“Hidden Thoughts” opens the album in a wave of spatial sounds and vibes. It feels like floating in space and watching the universe slowly form, or fall apart depending on your mood. “Leafless Tree” has the tone of a strange dream. Sounds echo like in a vast cavern of thought. “Spontaneous Possession” has the rhythmic workings of older Umberto. Melodies weave in and out of the track like thread sewing up a hole in the fabric of time. This is one of the few tracks here that there is a discernable rhythm. Hill’s use of pastoral sound mixed with electronic elements works so well, and especially here.
Tracks like “Higher Room” and “Sadness, Happiness, Disgust, and Surprise” work on a very visceral level. Strings and piano intertwine with the spatial electronic elements, with the latter achieving a sort of transcendent melancholy. The music of Umberto, regardless of how eerie and sci-fi heavy it is, always gets to a very emotional place which makes his work very human. “Absent Images” is an absolutely gorgeous and lilting track. Just stunning. “Arroyo” closes the album with almost new age zeal as powerful piano chords accompany buzzing tones and distorted string notes. A very cinematic ending to the journey.
Helpless Spectator has Umberto flexing cinematic muscles, as well as spatial and ambient moods. This feels like a next level record for Matt Hill, one where his film scoring and Umberto worlds have truly combined. It’s a stunning work, and a stand out in the Umberto canon.
Helpless Spectator is available now via Thrill Jockey Records. Order it here.
8.4 out of 10