Versatility is an interesting aspect in music, especially in metal and heavy music. When you stretch too far beyond yourself, it can lose people. Witness Opeth. But when that dexterity pushes you beyond your borders into exciting new terrain, that ability to change at a moment’s notice can be a big advantage.
Seattle-based band Helms Alee use their versatility to an insane level, never more obvious than on their great fourth record “Stillicide,” that could be the one that breaks them through to a wider audience. It’s the most accessible album in the band’s run, and that shouldn’t be taken as a negative. I know among heavy music that people get pissed when bands stretch their sound past extreme borders, but Helms Alee have had the ability to do this all along. They’re a raucous, fun band, and now they’re delving past sludge and grime and getting into terrain normally trampled in the early 1990s, when the term “alternative rock” actually meant something and pushed back against the norm. Helms Alee have that Pixies/Breeders thing going on, but they mix it with the Jesus Lizard intensity that smears insanity with artistic vision. This is a record that might be easier to listen to, but that doesn’t mean their sound has been stripped of attitude. They still can bash your face in, and they do that often on this record.
The band hinted heading in this direction on their super last album “Sleepwalking Sailors,” where they pulled their sound a little past what they established on their first two records “Night Terror” and “Weatherhead” (both released by the late, great Hydra Head). The band—guitarist/vocalist Ben Verellen, bassist/vocalist Dana James, drummer/vocalist Hozoji Margullis—sound supremely confident and smooth on “Stillicide,” a well-oiled machine that’s really coming into its own. They remain that oddball band that can tour with punk, hardcore, or metal bands (they’re currently out with Melvins), and they might even be able to go beyond that with this record.
“More Weight” is a quick introductory cut that has pianos scrambling and finding their way to “Untoxicated,” a crunchy dose of sludge that has singing leading the way and giving off a burlier Breeders feel. Warm psychedelic guitars enter toward the end and punch away to the finish. “Tit to Toe” charges up with an off-kilter riff, a really strong chorus, and dark moodiness that sends you on your way to “Meats and Milks,” which is fuzzed up and hazy at the start. Noirish guitars feed into the post-punk vibe, while the band members’ voices blend together nicely. Heaviness kicks a dent in your head, with Verellen wailing away, stirring soloing flooding, and a heartfelt burst of melody making the finish shine. The title cut is heavy as fuck in its opening minutes, with a thick bassline cutting down the middle. It later goes dreamy, with trippy playing adding a heavy glaze, and massive howling ravaging up to the song’s abrupt end. “Galloping Mind Fuk” is just that, with guitars churning, the vocals giving off heat, and an out-of-nowhere section where James and Margullis practically rap with fire and attitude. The song chews and smears, with the track ground up in grit.
“Creeping You Company” is slower and cleaner, something that could be a breakout hit for them, as Verellen handles the bulk of the singing. The track is cool and airy, something that would sound great at night, as you drive with the windows open and drink in the shadows. “Dream Long” lets guitars moan before they erupt. The vocals are washed out and weird, with yowled outbursts bruising and chunky mud smothering you. “Bullygoat” isn’t quite as mean as its title indicates, but it’s a really strong one. The guitars are jerky in spots, and the singing comes from all over, with harsh shouts at the tail end, and the song bleeding away. “Andromenous” lets drums kick in, with dreamy singing, jangling strangeness that coats your brain, and stimulating melodies. The bass starts to gnaw, while the song gains intensity and power, and the level of aggravation heightens. Closer “Worth Your Wild” spirals and stymies, with everyone’s singing colliding into each other’s and then mixing together. The tempo soars, as the track picks up heaviness, and the guitars begin to spit fire. The band hits on a loop, going back and making the room spin, while everything hits a crushing crescendo and a noise wave strikes and then fades away.
Helms Alee are kind of hard to describe for the uninitiated, so it’s always better to just put on the music and let their energy and power show the way. “Stillicide” is a raucous, fun record, one that has the band stretching their limbs further than they ever have before, resulting in 11 impactful, often atmosphere-rich tracks. This is a much different band than the one we got to know on their debut, and their next record might have them changing their spots yet again.
For more on the band, go here: http://helmsalee.net/
To buy the album, go here: https://www.hellomerch.com/collections/helms-alee
For more on the label, go here: http://sargenthouse.com/