Seattle has plenty to be excited about these days, what with their professional tackle football team prevailing in the Super Bowl, a game highlighted by me blowing out a tire and damaging my car in the process while driving home during halftime. Remember how I said it’s been a bad week? So yeah, they’re all pretty happy right now, and rightfully so.
But there’s another reason Seattle folk should be excited, because yet another awesome band from that area is back with a new record, that being “Sleepwalking Sailors,” the third full-length from Helms Alee. Here’s a band that really should be better known by now, and maybe this great new 11-track record will get the job done. The band is heavy enough to appeal to a metal audience (they’re touring alongside Russian Circles and Inter Arma, but sadly they won’t be on the version of the bill hitting my hometown), yet they also are melodic and approachable enough to appeal to fans of modern rock and roll and indie rock. I always found their records a lot of fun, and their sophomore album 2011 “Weatherhead” is on still in heavy rotation at my house today.
The story of “Sleepwalking Soldiers” is pretty interesting. Helms Alee used to be on Hydra Head, the incredibly eclectic label founded by Aaron Turner responsible for releasing music by bands such as Oxbow, ISIS, Torche, Cave In, Daughters, Jesu, and plenty more. But Hydra Head announced they no longer would be releasing new music, so Helms Alee found they needed another label home. They started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the making of “Sleepwalking,” and eventually, Sargent House came into the picture and decided to release the album. That’s a big move for the band, as Sargent House has a pretty great reputation for putting out strong, adventurous music by artists including Chelsea Wolfe, Boris, and Marriages, and perhaps this is what will help them get into more ears and their records into way more homes. They totally deserve it, as they’ve been working hard and making great music for years.
The band formed in 2007, combining Ben Verellen (Harkonen, These Arms Are Snakes) on bass and vocals, Dana James on guitars and vocals, and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis on drums and vocals. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach, especially vocally (seeing as that everyone gets a chance), and that’s a formula they’ve always made work quite well. Their first full-length “Night Terror” dropped on Hydra Head a year after their formation, and their aforementioned “Weatherhead” arrived three years later, showing a band that had progressed dramatically as players and performers, but still had the weird, mathy quirks that helped make them special. They also offered up a few smaller releases last year, including splits with Ladder Devils and Tacos!, keeping them in their followers’ minds while we waited for their third full-length. Now, two years after their last long player, Helms Alee keep improving as a unit, and they’ve never sounded as good as they do on “Sleepwalking Soldiers.”
“Pleasure Center” opens with swollen feedback, liquidy riffs, and Verellen howling on vocals (he actually handles the bulk of the lead duties on the record). It’s a buzzing, gruff song, and it’s a blast of energy. “Tumescence” is sludgy and metallic, with lush backing vocals balancing out the meatier yowls, and the guitar work is really strong and razor sharp. “Pinniped” delves into 1990s-style rock, sort of in the Breeders’ wheelhouse, and it’s a nice chance for listeners to sing along with this sometimes-punchy, sometimes-breezy cut. This should go over well live. “Dangling Modifiers” follows on the same pathway, with a jumpy opening that settles into a bumpy melody, shoegaze guitars that spread over the terrain, and atmospheric treatment. “Heavy Worm Burden” is one of the more confrontational songs on the record, with guitar squall, vocals that are in your face, especially shouts such as, “Animal mind is not simple,” and a musical breakdown at the finish matches the complications mentioned in the lyrics. Strong cut.
“Crystal Gale” is a shorter song that feels more like an interlude (not to mention the cheeky title has to make you chuckle), and that moves into “New West,” that has gritty guitar work, plenty of melody, and vocals switching off among members (giving that all-inclusive feeling). Eventually the music rises up to flood levels, with the guitars bubbling and giving off fumes, and the band exploring its way through the cosmos. “Fetus.Carcass” is an interesting one, as Verellen steps back from the mic for part of the song, allowing more soulful singing to take center stage (I admit I’m not sure if it’s James or Matheson-Margullis on vocals), and throughout its run, it keeps changing its pace, personality, and colors. “Slow Beef” has a Western-style opening, a long intro that establishes the song, and suddenly a blow up as the drums go nuts, the song plods along and bruises, and keyboards bleed in to add more texture. “Animatronic Bionic” is proggy, catchy, and muddy, and it paves the way for closer “Dodge the Lightning,” a grindy, mucky, but eventually dreamy song that lets them stretch their muscles. The middle portion is damn-near pop territory, though that doesn’t last long as the song picks up intensity, howling vocals erupt, and the final moments of the track chug mercilessly.
It’s great to hear Helms Alee firing on all cylinders like they do on “Sleepwalking Soldiers,” and the benefit of having Sargent House behind them should only strengthen their position. These are songs that sound like they’ll translate pretty well live, and they’re full of energy, interesting turns, and explosive fun. Helms Alee still remain something of an undiscovered treasure, so hopefully that changes for them as more people discover this killer new record.
For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/HelmsAlee
To buy the album, go here: http://sargenthouse.com/stores/
For more on the label, go here: http://sargenthouse.com/