Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money on stage, plays cello, but she plays cello as nobody else. She uses pedals, lots of them, she uses amps, and the sound she gets from her instrument is aggressive and dark, big and violent, distorted and glorious. She makes you forget she is using a classical instrument, as her sinister compositions flirt with hard rock, metal or post rock, like the soundtracks of some dark movie or even horror film.
For me, there was a large part of mystery about what she was doing when I saw her performing at Vacation Vinyl on Monday night, how was she managing to get this layered sound? There were many buttons she was turning, while she was either plucking the strings of her cello, or tearing and scratching the strings with her bow. There were long moments of heavy silence where only a few notes could be heard (and not a noise from the audience!), as if these notes were very slowly and painfully extirpated from the instrument, and then, with a simple pedal action, her sinister chamber-music soundtrack was becoming noisy and distorted like a glorious sabotage of the noble instrument in a total explosion of violence. Some of her riffs were doomer than black metal, and a rage was transpiring from each of the bow movements, making her cello vibrate, roar in distort, hardly letting a touch of some catchy part, buried into a monster reverb.
Although she has been performing under the moniker Helen Money since 2007, Alison Chesley’s pedigree is truly impressive: she has a master’s degree in Cello performance from Northwestern University, released two albums (one was produced by Bob Mould) as the rock acoustic duo Verbow, has opened for numerous acts such as Frank Black, Bob Mould, Counting Crows, Live, Morrissey, Liz Phair and Brad, and has collaborated to albums by Mono, Anthrax, Broken Social Scene, Russian Circles, Chris Connelly, Poi Dog Pondering, Bob Mould and Disturbed, among many others.
She was a total surprise, as I had never been exposed to such a sound coming from a cello, she said she would play a new song, and I thought someone may have been murdered during this dark moody number. It was certainly not upbeat music, it was rather coming from a raw sadness, alternating between desolation and violence, but what not to love about a woman who names her songs ‘Iggy’ and ‘Hendrix’?