There are legions of bands — successful ones — that exist to preserve the metal status quo. They are descendants of a mighty legacy, heirs to a spiky, blood-drenched throne. In short, they are metal bands that aren’t interested in reaching any further than the metal community, itself. And that’s perfectly fine; you can’t always kick ass and please everyone. But Seattle trio Helms Alee is not one of these bands. Not even close.
While Helms Alee is at heart a metal band, their methods are unconventional — even iconoclastic. On 2008’s Night Terror and 2011’s Weatherhead, each of which was released by the now inactive Hydra Head, the group yielded colossal and thunderous sounds through deceptively dense constructs. At their heaviest, in those rare moments when they get downright sludgy, there’s an undeniable melodic sensibility about Helms Alee’s music. Guitarist Ben Verellen, bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Margullis have intimate knowledge of how hooks work, and the dynamics behind atypical, albeit accessible melodies, all of which achieve a newfound sharpness on new album Sleepwalking Sailors.
Adorned by what is easily the best album cover of the year so far, depicting an angler fish with the band’s name spelled out in its teeth, Sleepwalking Sailors has a sense of fun and lightness about it, though not in any way that compromises the kind of impact the band creates. At times, it’s the heaviest the band has ever sounded, Verellen letting out some of his most ferocious bellows across the album’s 11 tracks. But the syncopated riffs that open “Pleasure Center,” which only lead up to an even punchier and more triumphant chorus, all but confirm this is anything but a metal album in any conventional sense.
Through the track titles of Sleepwalking Sailors, Helms Alee show both their sense of humor and winking references to metal culture (“Slow Beef,” “Dodge the Lightning”), but make no mistake, the picture is far more complex than that. On the hypnotic and dirge-like “Pinniped,” the group hews closely to another mighty Washington trio: Unwound. And the mixture of spaciousness and brawn on “Heavy Worm Burden” draws parallels to the hook-driven post-hardcore of Chavez. (And I should probably pause here to mention that any band that brings to mind both Unwound and Chavez — regardless of genre — is a special one, indeed.)
The deeper that Helms Alee delve into challenging melodic territory, however, the more compelling Sleepwalking Sailors grows. Both “Fetus. Carcass.” and “Slow Beef” explore greater atmospheric territory, in which both James and Margullis showcase their vocal skills, harmonizing beautifully in the former. But all of the band’s varied, seemingly contradictory elements converge in closing track “Dodge the Lightning,” blending harmony with brutality, heaviness with ethereality. It’s Helms Alee exploring the limits of what they can do, and then pulling the two extremes together from the center. That kind of collision, or at least a merger of sorts, is what makes Helms Alee a singular band. You can call them whatever you want — metal, post-hardcore, “rock” — but they’re much more interesting than that.
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.