Four on the floor 

Helicopters gain altitude, not attitude

"I'm the metal/punk rock guy in the band, but lately I've been listening to a lot of Weezer and Radiohead, and I love Sunny Day Real Estate. Shit. I am emo. I wear short tight pants. But I don't keep a diary, and I drink a lot."

On the other end of the line, hundreds of miles away in Kent, Ohio -- a college town known more for a certain deadly Vietnam War protest than a vibrant music scene, Party of Helicopters guitarist Jamie Stillman is conflicted.

Sure, a massive hangover is literally on his mind, but that's not his primary concern. After talking for almost half an hour about the misconceptions that surround his band and the strangely divided, sometimes unblinking crowds they draw -- one part mulleted metalheads, the other overly sensitive "emo" kids -- Stillman realizes he may harbor sympathetic emo tendencies of his own. And this doesn't sit well with him.

See, Stillman views Party of Helicopters -- which also includes bassist Ryan Brannon, vocalist Joe Dennis and new drummer Cory Race -- as somewhat of an anomaly. Even though the band came up playing in the same mid-to-late-'90s timeframe as the emo scene, Party of Helicopters never quite fit the bill. Shrugging off the "post-hardcore" tag and denying any affiliation with meticulous metal's new wave, Stillman (who doesn't consider himself as heavy on the guitar heroics as lauded contemporaries the Fucking Champs) likes to call the guitar-anchored Party of Helicopters a "rock band."

"I think, in all honesty, that's how we come across live," he says. "We can play with punk rock bands or indie rock bands, but there's something different about us. I mean, we all listen to those influences, but that's not really what we sound like. We listen to old Van Halen and My Bloody Valentine, and people sometimes compare us to them. But I don't think we sound like either."

What Party of Helicopters does sound like depends on which album you own. Now anticipating its third release, Party of Helicopters has moved from a straight forward wall of sound to a strongly structured mix of dream-pop vocals and righteous riffage that falls somewhere between Hum and heavy metal -- and well off to the side of likeminded bands who tend to take themselves way too seriously (e.g., Don Caballero). Along the way, the group has attracted its share of attention. Their sophomore album, Mt. Forever, landed in Spin magazine's online Top 10 of 2000 through sheer word of mouth.

But Party of Helicopters found one of its earliest, staunchest supporters here in Atlanta. Gavin Frederick of locally operated Stickfigure Distribution helped bankroll Party of Helicopter's full-length debut, 1998's Abracadaver (long sold out of three pressings).

Frederick saw Party of Helicopters during a visit to Philadelphia, his home prior to a 1992 move to Atlanta, where he now runs Stickfigure and a roving store (currently operating online or Saturdays out of the West End lofts). Frederick has spent the last few years developing the Stickfigure label, home to POH, Milemarker, Cerberus Shoal, Providence Union and others -- bands whose intense shows and evolving instrumentation (not to mention their willingness to tour) have impressed him over time. When Stillman's own label, Donut Friends, raised only half the money needed for Abracadaver, Frederick stepped in to fund a split release, and is now handling a repackaged/remastered re-release of Party of Helicopter's debut.

"Their sound has changed a lot," admits Frederick. "They've gotten more technical. It's not like they're Emperor or something, but there's something in the guitar work. But in '96 they sounded like a way more rocking Make-Up on speed. It's still kind of in the indie rock camp, for lack of better words. But there's more black metal influence on the guitars now. At the time, they were more a bunch of crazy kids who didn't care. And they're older now and still don't care."

But Stillman says the band did care about toning things down -- studio-wise -- for its most recent release, Space ... And How Sweet It Was, a double-CD effort that finds the happy medium between the visceral and the vivid. While on the overdub-heavy, critically acclaimed Mt. Forever, the band went back and added what Stillman describes as "ridiculous amounts of unperformable tracks" (as many as 10 vocal tracks or 14 guitar tracks on a single song), the five tunes on Space were recorded live in two days and are almost free of additional studio workovers. The result is a mix of the raw energy and sparse vocals of Abracadaver and the heavily angled thrust of Mt. Forever's copious harmonies. The second CD of the new set features songs from the group's limited The First Two Years of Conquering the Tundra one-sided LP, recorded during the Mt. Forever sessions.

Party of Helicopters is now taking its choppy rhythms and searing-hot licks to the road, something the band hasn't done on a major scale for more than a year.

"We're a lot stronger as a band," says Stillman. "Instead of people standing there and looking blankly, they now bob their heads."

Party of Helicopters plays Wed., Jan. 9, at The Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Road. Jon Finley, Rizzudo and the Black Aux open. Doors open at 10 p.m. $5. 404-522-3950. www.badearl.com.

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