Pushing The Envelope: Helios Creed’s High Frequency Head Music
By: Scott Lewis
Option Magazine Issue #49
March/April 1993

“Russian scientists made a report about 10 years ago,” explains Helios Creed, “on how American youth are addicted to heavy metal and guitar distortion. I took that idea and made sure that in my music you can hear just about every frequency on guitar distortion that you can absorb.” After a naughty cackle, Creed pauses and puts on his best pusherman voice: “And just in case you can get addicted to it, I’ve got a couple of frequencies that no one has tried yet.”

Although the term cyberpunk, when applied to music, refers to a certain kind of synthesizer-driven dance music, it really should refer to Helios Creed. For the past 15 years, Creed has combined the energy and edge of punk with mind-altering doses of technology. At a show in Chicago last spring, he and his band enthralled their audience with a sound that flickered with science fiction-like intensity. The guitar, drums, bass and keyboards sent out an electronic pulse that reached into the audience like the tentacles of a cyber-octopus. Creed’s overdriven guitar dominated the sound with thick slabs of feedback haloed by flange and delay.

The times hare finally catching up to Helios Creed. In the mid-70’s, he began processing punky, heavy metal guitar riffs through as much technology as he could get his hands on. Today, with heavy guitar on the upswing again, and bands like the Butthole Surfers and Ministry using processed guitar sounds that come straight from the Creed catalogue, the former Chrome co-conspirator may be on the verge of a success- or at least a level of visibility-that has so far eluded him. Creed has recorded several guitar tracks for the new Butthole Surfers album and his new album, Kiss To the Brain (Amphetamine Reptile), is a virtual encyclopedia of his past styles and techniques.

Creed first surfaced as guitarist and vocalist for Chrome, which put out nine or so albums between 1977 and 1983. He joined the band in time for its second album, Alien Soundtracks. Only 19 at the time, Creed was already interested in mutated guitar, vocals treated with tapes and devices, backward sounds and so forth. From the beginning, he used technology to make music for the mind’s darker crevices, a heavy metal tinged surrealism.

When he spoke of his idiosyncratic sound, his voice rises and falls dramatically, and you can still detect a hint of dialect from his native Southern California. “I have a strong urge to make music sound like…” He trails off and asks, “Have you ever been really high? And you hear music that doesn’t have any effects, but it sounds like it did? I have a really strong urge to make music that sounds like that, without being high; where you don’t have to be high to get that effect. But if you were high,” he adds, “it would really be a double whammy.”

Kiss To the Brain’s title track hits like that, and Creed says it’s because he had more time and money to spend on the effects. The song begins with a backwards grinding noise that evolves into a long Pink Floyd-ish section, with acoustic guitar over soaring synth washes. While Creed intones the words, a second, slowed down voice recites the text in the background. After a couple minutes, a soaring, space-opera female vocal comes in, sounding like the soundtrack to a 50’s sci-fi flick before the whole thing turns to ethereal flanged sounds and starts swirling down a hole. Just as you get comfortable listening to this, Creed blows it away with an explosion of heavy-metalish guitar over an ominous bass line and deep, growling, electronically manipulated vocals. It’s pure Helios Creed, trippy on about three levels at once and full of surprises.

“I’ve studied what people think is psychedelic music, who I think are the true psychedelic masters, who created music that would sound proper if you listened to it under the influence of some kind of good psychedelic drug,” he says. “I’ve thought about that since I was a kid. It fascinates me. In our heads, there must be this whole other way of hearing music, to where it can really get you high. I still think we’re not totally there yet, as an evolved race, to enjoy music in the fullest possible way.”

The first records Creed ever owned sent him towards guitar experimentation. “Blue Cheer was the first rock record that I bought,” he says. “You know Blue Cheer? They had the really crunchy guitarist. That really inspired me a whole lot. Leigh Stephens played a very overdriven kind of guitar sound, and it made a big impression on me. That was one of my earliest but biggest influences: the noise generated by his guitar, and Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and Robert Fripp’s guitar later on. I just really had a thing about guitarists that made noisy weird sounds.” He lets out a quiet, slightly maniacal chuckle, and adds, “You might say I’m a little hung up on it.”

Growing up in a nomadic Navy family- he went from Southern California to the East Coast and Hawaii- Creed felt different as a child. He left home at 18 and seemed to attract trouble. “You might say I was a crazy drinker,” he recalls. “In those days I would drink and I would just totally go out of my mind. I’d do a lot of strange things that I wouldn’t remember later. I lost a lot of friends, a lot of girlfriends. One time I ended up in a mental institution.”

Given the choice between serving time in jail or hospital, Creed chose the latter. After about a week, authorities agreed to let him out. It was during that period that he met and began to play the club circuit with Chrome’s electric violinist, Gary Spain.

Gary said he was in a band that was making a record,” Creed remembers. “I’m like, ‘Oh, really? Can I hear it?’ And he played it for me, and I dug the fact that it was weird and had all kinds of effects and stuff. The music wasn’t very good, but the effects were really cool and I wanted to be in the band.”

The album was Chrome’s debut, The Visitation (Siren). Spain introduced Creed to the band’s leader, Damon Edge, and the two hit it off immediately. With Creed now on guitar, the group’s music evolved into a disturbing world of dark psychedelic tempered by punk influences, heavy metal and drone. “Nobody was really doing anything like it at the time,” Creed says. “All the other musicians were caught up in this hippy blues thing. And then punk rock became popular. We were going to be a punk rock band, but we thought that was really limiting. We did have a whole punk set actually worked out in the garage, but in order to be in punk rock you had to follow all these rules, and we just couldn’t do that. So at the time we did Chrome we were just outcasts – of everybody.

“But we kept some of those punk songs and threw in some backwards shit. We were very influenced by the punk scene, but we couldn’t consider ourselves punk. We were young enough and we could cut our hair and play the music,” he adds with another deranged laugh, “but we wanted to do something stranger than that.”

Creed and Edge channeled punk’s energy into a more expanded, aggressive, experimental sound, with Creed bowing his guitar or chopping out stilted metal chords. The vocals were sped up, slowed down, or played backwards. Edge contributed angry, crude drumming, eerie electronic noises, and painstaking production marked by layers of sounds and effects. The song titles drew from pulp science fiction and B-grade horror: “You’ve Been Duplicated,” “Zombie Warfare,” “Magnetic Dwarf Reptile.”

Chrome’s strength was that whatever Edge lacked in musical competence, he made up for with ideas. “Damon wasn’t a rock musician, or any kind of musician at all,” says Creed. “What he wanted to do was something a lot more artsy than what I wanted to do, but we developed each other’s styles. In the process I got addicted to guitar effects, and I had to always have more to fulfill my need to have the guitar sound a different way. I guess he was addicted to drum and keyboard effects. And we liked our addictions, you know?”

One of the first projects that Creed and Edge tackled was a soundtrack for a sex flick by porn impresarios the Mitchell Brothers. Creed isn’t sure how Edge talked them into the deal, but Chrome’s contribution was ultimately rejected because the music was too strange. The project became Chrome’s second album, Alien Soundtracks, and the story of its origins gives more immediate meaning to song titles like “Slip It To The Android” and “Chromosome Damage.”

Because Chrome spent a lot of time experimenting before recording Alien Soundtracks, the group’s vision peaked on its followup, 1979’s brilliant Half Machine Lip Moves (both LP’s are back in print on one Touch & Go CD). But the playing and production would become even more sophisticated on Chrome’s next albums, Red Exposure (1980) and Blood On The Moon (1981; both on Siren). The songs became less choppy and more droning, the sound was less frantic and more polished. In the song “Perfumed Metal,” Creed encased his power-rock riffs in an aura of flange and delay; the distorted vocals echoed from speaker to speaker, while an amphetamine-deranged beat propelled the whole thing along.

Creed says that in Chrome he learned not only about technical things, but about how to keep his creativity flowing. “We used a lot of accidents,” he says. “That’s one of the things that I called ‘The School of Chrome Learning’ – to listen to your mistakes and see beauty or see art in them, and use them. A lot of the EP Read Only Memory was accidents, doing the first thing that came to your head. I still work like that today. If I’m having a hard time with a song, I’ll just go in and start doing whatever and see if it works.”

Creed left the group in 1983 because he wanted to play live and Edge didn’t. When he talks about the period, you get the sense that the split-up may also have involved a more general kind of personality conflict. “I’m not sure what the deal was back then,” Creed says reluctantly. “He wouldn’t talk about it.” Creed indicates ill feelings had developed between the two. “I think he was also hung up about competing with me, ‘cause I was mostly the lead vocalist and the guitar player. So maybe he had a few problems with that. Anyhow, eventually I just made my own band and got away from that energy.”

Without Creed, Chrome’s later albums lacked the band’s distinctive drive, sounding like moody, synthesizer-based new wave. Similarly, Creed’s first solo album, X-Rated Fairy Tales (Subterranean), sounded like college-radio filler mixed with some watered-down Chrome. It lacked the sci-fi psychedelia that made Chrome so compelling. Creed lets out a vaguely embarrassed laugh when talking about that album. “It’s a pretty straight record, huh? My space at the time was that I wanted to make songs. But after I got that out of my system, I wanted to get stony again.”

That he did. On his following album, 1988’s Superior Catholic Finger (Subterranean), Creed continued in the earlier Chrome vein, concentrating on sound rather than song. The album includes several instrumentals based on guitar treatments and textures. It also displays the grinding, droning overdriven guitar sound Creed developed after leaving Chrome. Four albums later, Creed’s guitar sound has continued to evolve, while his vocals in many cases are so treated they’re incomprehensible. “If I don’t like the vocals forward I’ll do ‘em backward,” he says.

On his last few albums, even Creed’s guitar often seems more like a noise generator than an instrument capable of creating chords or even atonal melodies. His 1991 album Lactating Purple (Amphetamine Reptile) is the most tightly focused of his works, with almost every track using slabs of meaty guitar feedback that resemble sonic sculpture as much as music. It’s the kind of music that you feel inside your skull, but that also forces your body to writhe. According to Creed, it’s the sound those Russian scientists were referring to in their report about guitar addiction.

Creed cackles. “If they think kids are strung out on certain frequencies, that’s worth being studied. I think that frequencies are addicting – certain abrasive ones. I don’t know why. I’m still trying to figure it out. Teenagers on up through their 20’s really gravitate to those sounds.” He suddenly gets cosmic: “Could be a vibration that’s in harmony with the sound within them. I felt that way when I was young. Black Sabbath made this big ugly sound, and you could feel the awesome power. It draws you like a moth to the light.”

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