A computer, a keyboard and music software in the wrong hands, is not necessarily a dangerous thing, but it can lead to an insufferably banal experience for the unwitting listener. Having said that, unleash someone with the pedigree of Dave Hillis at those ones and zeros, and a music fan could reasonably expect the bar to be raised fairly high indeed. On Skylines, his debut through The Vault Records, Hillis lifts the bar as he soars.
It’s a record that leans into a love of samplers and synths that began around high-school in Seattle for the young Mr. Hillis, and it’s almost as far away from his stock in trade, big heavy guitar rock, as can be imagined. For the uninitiated, Dave Hillis was a guitarist with pre-grunge thrashers Mace, and later, chief recording engineer on Pearl Jam’s iconic 1991 record, Ten. Yes, THAT mega selling, super mega reputation building record, among many other credits he’s picked up in the arena of, well, big arena rock bands! But on Skylines, Hillis disabuses us of the idea that type-casting will happen in this particular movie. All that grungy hard rock history gets lovingly packed up to make way for a favorable tangent along an already ridiculous resume.
It’s a cinematic mix, with the whole sound stage, front, back, left, right, up and down expertly filled to the brim with points of interest. Rhythm is a big thing for Hillis, with beats chopped, and flown in deftly; reverbs, delays, and just the right amount of fuzz everywhere, making for a modern and yet, strangely timeless sound. I hear hints of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, or David Bowie’s woefully neglected Earthlings album, as well as definite nods to his listed influences Chemical Brothers and Tricky. Hillis is light on the lyrical content but that’s not a terrible thing. It’s a record meant to light up international dance floors, not poetry slams, and there are tracks here that are most effective at this task.
Fat, fuzzy Euro-Pop bass lines, punch their way stridently through solid arrangements on the first couple of songs; “Flowers“, and the ridiculously dancey “Sunglasses“, only to be broken up by the tragically short “Boulevard of the Allies“… Ya left us hanging here Dave, I really, really wanted more of this… “Angels Envy” is a fun playground of reversed and delayed guitar notes, providing a backdrop for a Massive Attack-ish late night soiree, followed by the oddity “Skylines“, which seems like it was written for a particular movie scene. It’s trippy, it’s kinda something, but again, it’s frustratingly short, and I keep asking myself, why? Unless Mr. Hillis, in all his wisdom, felt he needed some kind of segue into the stomping, and wonderfully expansive “Beautiful You“?! This song reminds me of those old Enigma records, but it in a much cooler way. There are no indigenous chants but it does make me breath deep, and want to move. In “The Light I Rise“, and “Vortex Blues“, are not without merit but again follow “Boulevard of the Allies” and “Skylines” into the questionable space of, is this an album or a pitch to Netflix Sync executives? “Red Black and Blue” is a mesmerizing track, with phenomenally destroyed snare sounds, which once again, exclaims that for Mr. Hillis, rhythm is king, and is to become his trademark. As with “Boulevard of the Allies”, “Carrick” pays homage to Hillis’ current residency in Pittsburgh, PA but unfortunately, I don’t believe his neighbors will be happy. It’s very much a bloated, overly extended collection of spacey ideas, with little or nothing to hang onto. Hillis has lots and lots of great ideas all over this work, but I just could not find an anchor to tie me down in this track. “Idoru“, even with its oddly abrupt start, thankfully, is a fine close to this notable debut record.
Dave Hillis is without doubt, an incredibly talented musician and producer in his own right. His supremely enviable past credits are one thing, Skylines almost wholesale departure from those credits, is quite something else. His love for the dance/electronica genre is obvious, and he can stand tall behind this album, despite a couple of minor flaws. Personally, it’s a debut that leaves me expectantly wondering what’s over his next horizon.