The very first time I saw Donny Donovan and Gregg Brunner perform, it was while they were part of the now-defunct Pittsburgh band Roulette Waves, opening for Screaming Females at Cattivo in 2016. My attention span is short and I was very drunk, but I took note while Roulette Waves were playing: they were good as hell.
When Roulette Waves’ guitarist moved away, Brunner and Donovan thankfully decided to keep playing music together under a new name, Hearken, and I’m so glad that they did. These people seem destined to play music together, and their new album Help Me, I’m Alive (to be digitally released June 27th with an official release show on June 28th) is proof.
Help Me, I’m Alive (which you can preview/pre-order on Bandcamp) starts off solid with “Wake Up” and the production quality is instantly impressive. The album was recorded and mixed at Thunder Bird House by Alex Herd and mastered by Alex Santinelli at Spice House Recording, and clearly these two Alexes know what the fuck they are about, because the album is sonically flawless.
The initial impression with this album is that it is meant to be blasted. “Wake Up” just sounds like a damn rock anthem, and the energy is carefully maintained throughout the next 9 songs, too. Consistently, these songs are sludgy and dark. Some of the guitar sound reminds me of the guitars on Hum’s killer album You’d Prefer an Astronaut, some of it sounds like the very best Hole songs. This is what I’m looking for when I’m digging through the grunge section of a record store.
If this video doesn’t “Fix Me,” nothing will:
The vocal inflection on “Drugs” reminds me of certain Camp Cope songs, and it doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that Hearken has opened for them. It’s like Hearken listened to some of my favorite albums from the ‘90s plus some mid-2000s pop punk and ‘70s Black Sabbath and took notes before creating an album that sounds perfectly influenced, but not derivative.
Hearken is a two-piece band—it’s just Donovan and Brunner—but they play along with a backing track with various instruments that keep the sound as full as any more populated band. It’s equal parts lush and sparing, and you can tell that a lot of attention was paid to every sound the listener hears. Somehow, they manage to convey that level of attention without sounding overproduced—it’s not glossy.
Brunner is clearly doing The Most on drums throughout the album; the drums are gorgeously recorded, but it’s not distracting or disruptive so Donovan’s multi-instrument musicianship is able to shine through, too.
“Fix Me” is the first song I heard from the album, when it came up on Spotify and I thought, “Who is this? I love this!” The energy remains at a constant level of “clench your fists, close your eyes and yell along,” which I would have done immediately if I’d known the words. “Sure Shock” features synth sounds that lock the hook in place and is another example of a song that does not sound like only two people made it. Plus, there’s an impeccably timed dog bark at the end, which is delightful.
A neat shot of the duo rocking out:
“Butterfly” starts off with a ballad-y riff and some unexpected prettiness in the form of a delicate piano part. It’s a nice landing spot from the previous bangers…. And then comes the feedback with a plaintive howl of “I lost everything,” with the piano still balancing everything out. This is the kind of song that’s so fun to see bands play live, watching the crowd get quiet and then fired up right along with the band. Part of the reason why this album rules so hard is that most of these songs have that inexplicable feeling of being an instant classic. The “whoa-oh-ohs” and the drums on “Tired” have that pop-punk anthem quality that is a fail-safe pick-me-up on bummer days.
It’s worth noting Donny’s voice is impressively versatile on this record. They’re capable of handling a lot of different types of vocals in a way that seems pretty effortless. Sometimes it’s raw, sometimes delicate, and it always seems to work. Just like Hearken sounds like a band with more than two people in it, Donovan’s voice sounds like it’s more than just one person’s voice. “I Don’t Owe You” is quiet and moody, and “you love me by mistake” = instant chills. It does the thing where you think the song is over and then it comes right back in. What a relief! I love a good fake-out.
“Bloom” starts off in a way that I think I know what’s going to happen next. And then it doesn’t! It’s somehow even sludgier and darker than I thought it was going to be. Those qualities are the best part of this album, and this song has a couple Sabbath moments, too, which means that it’s perfect. The perfect ending comes in the form of “Last Bloom.” Flawless drums that show up and disappear, with Donovan’s voice as gorgeous here as it was angsty on “Bloom” (very). There’s floaty, dreamy, fuzzy guitars that repeat as the album draws to a close, as you wait for the song to get heavier and it doesn’t. Hearken’s next move proves difficult to anticipate. They keep things interesting.
When we first heard this song it came as a total “Sure Shock”:
As soon as Help Me, I’m Alive is digitally released on June 27th, it’s going to enter my heavy rotation playlist. The album from start to finish is carefully considered, skilfully presented, and very fucking good.
Help Me, I’m Alive Track Listing:
01. Wake up
03. Fix Me
04. Sure Shock
08. I Don’t Owe You
10. Last Time
Run Time: 42:20
Release Date: June 27, 2019
Record Label: Self-Released