The venerable Hydra Head label has counted among its ranks a wide swath of heavy music visionaries, from the progressive (Cave In) to the technical (Knut, Botch, Mare) and even the noisily abstract (Prurient). Yet the Los Angeles-based imprint has, of late, tapped into an interesting cross section of sludge metal, punk and classic rock, most notably with the fist-pounding one-minute blasts of Torche and the burly Melvins-like stomp of Big Business. As it turns out, those two bands have joined forces on a U.S. tour this summer, but the third act on the bill, Helms Alee, is perhaps the most interesting of the three, easily matching their peers in sheer volume and impact, but carving their own unique niche, an impressive stylistic blend of classic rock riffs, Sonic Youth-style post-punk and sheer metal destruction.
Following 2008’s Night Terror, Weatherhead is a stunning and diverse 14-track selection that’s as rich in melody as it is in bone-crunching riffs and churning sludge. In just the first three songs proper, the Seattle trio charges through three tracks that each plot their own separate stylistic paths. Following a brief intro, the band soars into a burly punk-metal chug rife with stunning vocal harmonies on “Elbow Grease,” drops into their grimiest sludge on “8/16,”and subsequently lets off the fuzz for a dreamy, Unwound-style post-hardcore sojourn on the amazing “Music Box.” That these are all the work of one band speaks highly of Helms Alee’s dexterity as a band, and for that matter, their unwillingness to be confined to any one approach.
The highlights barrage the listener at a dizzying clip on Weatherhead, tied together primarily by the band’s jaw-dropping musicianship and a firm handle on some unstoppable hooks. “Pretty as Pie” opens with a long series of arpeggios that seem to want nothing more than to soar into the cosmos, but two minutes in, a massive thud pulls the band’s astral ambitions back to earth for a kickass psych-metal stomp. The gentle finger-picked instrumental “Anemone of the Wound” transitions into the like-minded plod of “Mad Mouth.” “Pig Pile” is a sinister and ethereal shoegazer-influenced standout, while “Revel!” is simply psych-punk euphoria and “Ripper No Lube” is one merciless and badass throb.
Helms Alee hit an intense climax on the album’s title track, which closes this celebration of all things abstract and pummeling with a fierce mixture of abrasive hardcore grind and soaring rock anthem. The band crams a lot of different ideas into Weatherhead, some of them abrasive and brutal, some of them more serene and subtle. Yet hardly a moment on this slab of genre-defying metal is wasted.
Stream: Helms Alee – “Elbow Grease”
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.