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For many bassists addicted to distortion, the gut-wrenching dirge that opens the 1996 Failure tune “Heliotropic” is one of the finest modern representations of bass fuzz. The tone has an angry, almost industrial vibe—it sounds as if the entire bass rig is about to collapse under its own sheer power.
Greg Edwards and Ken Andrews split bass duties in Failure till the group disbanded in 1997. Nailing their signature bass grind is tough unless you’re rocking their specific setup: Ampeg SVT II, ProCo Rat, green Sovtek Big Muff, and a 2000-watt Ampeg 8x10 cab with Eden speakers.
Enter Ryan Ratajski of Fuzzrocious Pedals. A bassist himself, Ratajski has risen to this tonal challenge with his new Heliotropic stompbox. It’s a handbuilt fuzz device designed to emulate and expand upon Failure’s edgy bass tones.
The Heliotropic is based on a heavily modified Big Muff-style circuit coupled with a custom preamp design. The pedal requires a standard 9-volt adapter—batteries aren’t an option. The circuit boards, switch, jacks, and controls boast impressively clean soldering, especially for a handbuilt pedal. Everything is neatly packed into a sturdy aluminum enclosure sporting a handpainted graphic.
There’s a quartet of knobs: pre-gain, sustain, volume, and tone. Pre-gain controls the preamp level, allowing you to hit the input of the fuzz circuit with varying force. Sustain adds even more gain, providing anything from light crunch to wildly intense fuzz.
The Fuzz Who Loved Me
Wielding a Fender Jazz and running the Heliotropic into a Verellen Meatsmoke head paired with an Ampeg Isovent combo cab, I set the pedal’s controls to the manual’s suggested positions for a “Heliotropic-like” sound: pre-gain at 9 o’clock, sustain at 3 o’clock, tone at 2 o’clock, and volume a touch above unity. There was incredibly dense and vicious-sounding fuzz as soon as I hit the strings. The gnarly midrange, subsonic lows, and scraping industrial highs were eerily similar to the tone on the original recording. There was impressive note depth, even as I moved high up the neck, yet the pedal preserved the clarity and bite of my bypassed tone surprisingly well, even at the pedal’s most intense settings.
When I pushed the pre-gain control to about 2 o’clock, the fuzz’s attack began to soften and the sound displayed a strong upper-octave effect. This cool, synth-like tone was especially useful for Moog-ish sounds when soloing the neck pickup. Due to the ridiculous amounts of gain, there was quite a bit of background noise. I was able to partially tame it by dropping the sustain knob below noon, but at the expense of the fuzz’s previously fluidity. That said, this setting showed off the sustain control’s extraordinary ability to soften low-end response without sacrificing presence, yielding a new range of dark, subdued tones with exceptional growl.
Fair warning: The Heliotropic is most certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s for bassists who crave intensely abrasive fuzz. It lives up to its namesake, capturing much of Failure’s cacophonous bass tone. The Heliotropic’s extended range and remarkable detail make it somewhat versatile—you can get deeper fuzz tones with a relaxed attack. But it’s much easier to dial up fierce fuzz than to achieve a warm vintage growl. If you’re one of the many Failure fans who haven’t managed to chase down that famous bass tone—or a bassist looking for a fuzz that stands out in a crowd—put the Fuzzrocious Heliotropic at the top of your must-try list.