Alison Chesley is an unparalleled cellist and composer who has been making boundaryless music for nearly three decades under the moniker Helen Money. From her work in Verbow to her solo releases, extending to her work as a highly sought after collaborator with Jarboe, Bob Mould, Steve Albini, Neurosis and many more, Chesley has remained a singular voice and a pioneer in expanding the scope and perception of the cello. Will Thomas is an active composer for commercials, TV, and film (GvsE, CSI, The Haunted Swordsman). He has also contributed to several of Helen Money’s solo albums and an ongoing collaboration with Roger Eno. Trace marks Thomas’s and Chesley’s first fully collaborative album, synthesizing their myriad skills as songwriters, performers, and sound artists into vivid, profoundly moving music.
Helen Money and Will Thomas are masters of invoking emotional atmospheres. Their music paints in vibrant hues with outlines blurred, often using dense layers of processed instruments and textural ambience as a backdrop for harmonic tension and melodies. Trace is thrillingly cinematic. Each piece tells a compelling story through ratcheting suspense, twisting shifts, unfurling arcs, and blissful repose. “I don’t compose with a storyline in mind,” says Chesley. “I search for a feeling – a sound. It’s often not until the very end of the process that I realize what I was trying to express.” Chesley’s cello and Thomas’s synthesized textures converse with one another with a sense of curiosity. They each use their highly developed means of conveying emotion through sound and their collaborative natures to accentuate the emotional arc of the compositions. After years supplementing each other’s music and the long isolation of lockdowns, their collaboration’s conversational approach is rich with the electricity of old friends reconnecting. Chesley notes, “I was feeling grateful to be able to do this with someone I had worked with for so long – to be in the studio together again.”
Trace is a masterclass in sound design. Chesley’s formidable skill as a cellist and composer ground the compositions with rich organic sounds of cello and bow. Thomas’s equally deft hand manipulated electronics, keyboards create potent frameworks that bolster the sense of mystery and searching across the album. “Thieves” applies a jittering rhythmic pulse and sampled cello harmonics that tug forward anxiously before distorted cello thrusts transform the piece into something more resolute. The duo of “Half Asleep” and “Half Awake” act as companion pieces, using lush arrangements of cello and piano, each intoning atop steady chordal figures that sound distant and familiar, like meeting a friend in a dream. Chesley and Thomas pursue harmony and discord in equal measure. A thrum of foreboding blurs the lines between their instruments on “Boulevard in Silence,” which embodies wisps of shadow and the cowl of nightfall. Industrial crashes and obliterated bass textures subsume “Tilt” and the gorgeous timbres of “Glass Shattered” swim in waves of dissonance without resolution. “Trace” moves from gentle nudges to a hypnotic thump as the piece grows more rhythmically and sonically dense; each deviation rewarding with unexpected textures and sounds.
Chesley and Thomas’s unique voices as composers remain discernable and present throughout the album, but Trace is a celebration of connection of collaboration with an acute sense of details and the power they convey. On Trace, the duo utilize timbre, tone and dynamics as essential tools in crafting stunning emotive narratives. Together, the duo wield sound with inquisitive aplomb, burrowing into each other’s sonic aesthetics and unearthing irrefutable beauty.