“Chops” refers to a level of playing that reflects hours of practice. The etymology of the term is anatomical, stemming from the shape of an experienced wind instrument player’s mouth, when the musculature inside the face and jowls is toned and refined by prodigious levels of practice to become supernaturally efficient at performing the peculiar task of blowing into a horn. No longer describing only players who use their mouths, any musician who seems to have sculpted a physique tailored to the playing of their instrument can be said to have chops.
Spencer Seim and Zach Hill make up the duo Hella. They typically play electric guitar and drums, respectively, and pretty much melt everyone’s faces off with their blistering speed and extreme synchronization. “Acoustics” is, fittingly enough, a brief EP of their past songs played without the aid of amps, allowing them to show off their chops in a stripped-down setting.
Hill’s chops are his gristly ankles and flailing arms, which he uses to create a sound similar to microwave popcorn with double-kick peddles and rapid-fire toms. Seim is a similar chopsy monster on the guitar, playing in that kind of ultraprecise style that can’t help sounding nerdy. Hella is like watching two hardcore gamers play a high-speed game of “Dance Dance Revolution” on hand-held controllers with the sound off; frighteningly impressive, excitingly esoteric, but with an entertainment value that after the first 30 minutes is reduced to morbid fascination at best and morose boredom at worst.
“Acoustics” is sort of a litmus test for the band, and one that it is admirable they would take. Without the distraction and inherent thrill of hearing things being played through amplifiers, there is nothing but chops on display here. And they wisely keep it short at six songs. It’s an enjoyable listen at first and pleasant enough noise after that, but really it’s just another way to display chops, which as discussed above, is just another word for a strangely overdeveloped set of muscles.
Muscles are not without inherent worth, but they are just a means to accomplish artistic ends. In popular culture’s most enduring and entertaining muscle show – professional wrestling – the muscles on display are mere vessels for the artfulness of the presentation; they serve the characters, symbolism and pageantry.
In music, chops have traditionally filled the same purpose, allowing a musician to more fully express herself, just as John Cena’s immense torso allows him to more fully drive someone into the mat.
Wrestling would be boring if it was just dudes in muscles just standing around flexing and lifting things. Music is boring if all it brings to the table is chops. Hella is entrancing in that their chops are bulbous and allow them to perform feats of skill and force. But they only become artful in those rare moments when they use them to power-bomb someone through a table.