Helms Alee thrive on idiosyncrasy, but that idiosyncrasy is most glaring in the context of metal as a canon. For 15 years the Seattle trio have made blurrier the line between sludge and post-hardcore, shoegaze and doom, psychedelia and grunge. In our review of the band’s 2019 album Noctiluca, Langdon Hickman referred to the band’s unique sonic makeup as “the sexiest prog on the planet,” and that’s pretty accurate. The band’s never seemed all that concerned with delivering riffs or breakdowns, even verses or choruses, when most bands would be expected to do so. Their songs snake around the very idea of pop song structure and thrive on the tension that builds in want of a climax. Where there’s an explosion of sheer heaviness and volume, it’s well earned, but it’s seldom the focal point on the band’s increasingly hypnotic, immaculately crafted heavy rock.
The first track on Keep This Be the Way, “See Sights Smell Smells” is a study in miniature of Helms Alee’s uniquely ambitious approach. At its core, the song is driven by rhythm more than melody—Hozoji Matheson-Margullis’ drums, along with a recurrent synth drone, are the most prominent sound in the song, underscoring a stoic, chanting vocal delivery. But when a melodic element does creep in, such as its eerie traces of piano, or a more chaotic sound, like the squealing sax that cuts through the drone, the song transforms into something more complex and haunting. Seemingly every few measures uncovers a new aspect to explore and unlock, and it all happens over the course of fewer than three minutes.
Keep This Be the Way is an album that comprises countless such moments, a fascinating and continuously compelling exploration of the band’s sound at its most nuanced and strangely beautiful, with bassist Dana James and Mathewson-Margullis providing lead vocals for most of the album. “How Party Do You Hard?” never achieves the kind of burly roar that the title track or “Tripping Up the Stairs” do, driven primarily by Ben Verellen’s swirling jazzy guitar licks, not a fuzzbox in sight to threaten its atmospheric buzz. The hookiest standout of the bunch is “Mouth Thinker,” a punchy, muscular rock song that maintains the kind of restraint that comes to define much of the album, but juxtaposed against some of the band’s most stunning vocal harmonies and brief but climactic bursts of fuzz. Of the myriad surprises the group packs into the album, a gorgeously psychedelic, synth-driven cover of Scott Walker’s “Big Louise” is perhaps the most surprising, though the band pulls it off with requisite reverence and weirdness alike, a cosmic reimagining that’s nowhere near as harrowing as where Walker’s music would later end up, but satisfyingly strange all the same.
When Helms Alee let their most heroic riffs fly, as on the hard-driving “Three Cheeks to the Wind” or the stoner drone of “Do Not Expose to the Burning Sun,” the result still feels some distance away from a conventional rock anthem. Keep This Be the Way is, instead, something much more interesting than that. The question of whether or not it rocks is a resounding yes, but never in obvious ways or excessive doses. It’s an approach to rock and metal that’s rife for exploration and immersion rather than quick-fix easy action, a triumph born of charting a path entirely their own.
Label: Sargent House
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.