Mary Timony led Helium into the outer sci-fi reaches of ’90s alt-rock. Their new career-spanning box set captures their singular, influential style of punk mysticism and righteous shredding.
In the early 1990s, riot grrrl rose in the Pacific Northwest, making charged feminist statements with bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile leading a semi-underground punk revolution. Their movement was partially a response to the male-dominated grunge era, which had already achieved commercial success. An emerging crop of female voices like Alanis Morissette and Tracy Bonham rose to mainstream status in the mid-’90s alongside iconoclasts like Björk and Polly Jean Harvey, but flying somewhat under the radar was Mary Timony, a singular talent in her college town of Boston.
Declaring and expressing your feminism wasn’t easy in an industry controlled and executed mostly by men, and those who did were the brave souls who paved the way for a new era of female-fronted bands to come, among them Gossip and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, about a decade later. Mary Timony also took on sexism and sex workers, but in more subtle fashion. The cellular makeup of her music seemed inscrutable. She was one-part shoegazer, one part rocker; another part punk, another part mystic.
At that time, Timony was just getting started in what has become her winding walk around the block of American indie rock, leaving a lasting impression that she’s continuing to craft after nearly three decades of making her brand of math-prog-punk. Called a prodigy by music teachers during her formative years, Timony ignited her start in 1990 as lead guitarist with the short-lived D.C. Dischord lady band Autoclave, fronted by Christina Billotte. Fast-forwarding to 2014, Timony announced Ex Hex, the garage-rock trio that made waves with Rips. In the middle of a long and storied journey, Timony spent several years doing solo projects, a one-year stint in 1999 with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein in the Spells, and from 2010–2013, pounded out post-punk jams with supergroup Wild Flag, again with Brownstein, plus S-K/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss.
But from 1992–1997, there was Helium, a five-year riot of rock’n’roll. They were central to East Coast indie, and the band’s history comes full-circle with Matador’s vinyl re-release of their 1995 full-length debut, The Dirt of Luck, and a double LP of Helium’s second and final LP, The Magic City, combined with the No Guitars EP. Matador also gives us Ends With And, a double LP collection of Helium rarities, singles, EPs, and demos that were pulled out of the dust of basements and attics.
As singer and guitarist, Timony played the role of songwriter-in-chief for Helium, but the band’s hardiness is owed in large part to bassist Ash Bowie, he of critical guitar acclaim for Polvo, and Shawn King Devlin on drums. Interestingly, Bowie had never played bass before Helium, and Helium didn’t exactly start as Helium. In the early formation days in Boston, Helium was a quartet called Chupa with only one constant: Devlin. The rest of band included Brian Dunton, Jason Hatfield (Juliana Hatfield’s brother), and Mary Lou Lord on vocals and guitar. As a recent Boston University grad, Timony replaced Lord shortly after formation, because Lord wasn’t a fan of electric instruments.
Sound-wise, Helium was influenced by prog and paired well with Touch & Go bands like Blonde Redhead and Polvo, and Sub Pop’s the Spinanes. Restless but not reckless, Helium mixed themes of beauty and femininity with underlying dirty, dark, and masculine tones. Their lyrics are sometimes angry, other times mysterious and melancholy, and almost always a little mythical. As the band progressed, some Helium songs became complicated and heady. Angels, skeletons, and prostitutes are some of the characters you’ll meet on The Dirt of Luck. Timony tells tales of troubled young souls, though you can’t always make out the lyrics when her vocals are drowned out by heavy guitar. On the first track, “Pat’s Trick,” Timony introduces her monotone voice and a chugging guitar/bass melody, a song that mentions flowers and power, but with absolutely no hippie references. On “Baby’s Going Underground,” Devlin’s drums build like thunder as Timony sings, “Baby, I saw they kicked you down/Now you're the only dirty trick in town/The stars are bright under your nightgown/A star is bright, a star is round.”
Helium took a leap forward with 1997’s The Magic City, with Timony’s vocals ringing louder, the band emitting more collective confidence, and the sound becoming richer with the addition of keyboard, sitar, and harpsichords. Magic City songs are often like fairy tales, covering topics ranging from devil’s tears to magic crimes in ancient times, and even aging astronauts. You could find early Genesis influences on the eight-minute epic, “The Revolution of Hearts Pts I and II.” On “Lady of the Fire,” Timony sings, “I was born underground, I have two horns/And I'm gonna make love to a unicorn.” It was a strange confluence of alt-rock and fantasy, both kinetic and transportive.
Which leaves us with the finale: Ends With And, a collection of songs pressed onto blue and yellow vinyl. Timony said that she “pored over hours of unlabeled cassette demos, odd test pressings, and DAT tapes” to assemble songs like “Green Chair,” which as you learn from the liner notes, was created in 1997 with their friend Kendall Meade (Mascott) while touring Europe with Sleater-Kinney. These liner notes are one of the best parts about the double LP, akin to a fanzine filled with the inside scoop about the band, by the band. Also included in the set are clips of reviews from Sassy and Chick Factor, official arbiters of cool back in the Clinton era.
At a time when riot grrrl aimed to change the game for female musicians, Mary Timony played for both teams. She was simultaneously respected by the politically charged Pacific Northwest scene—and continues to collaborate with them today—while making a statement as a badass woman guitarist in Helium. Helium’s sound is cemented in the ’90s, but the curiosity of Timony and the far-out ways of her music let this music live outside of the standard imagery of college rock and grunge. Her impact on music is both indelible and ever-changing, and most importantly, far from over.