Bands, inherently, are the sum of their component parts; the best ones, naturally, supersede them.
Helms Alee first emerged in 2007, composed of excellent parts: guitarist Ben Verellen, bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margulis are all excellent players, and veterans of Seattle’s heavy-music scene. (In particular, Verellen was a member of revered heavies These Arms Are Snakes, Harkonen and Roy.) From the beginning, Helms Alee always sounded bigger than the sum of its parts, making much more noise than bands twice its size. Part of that’s because of their hardware — Verellen makes big, loud amplifiers perfect for heavier music, in particular that of his band.
But Helms Alee’s biggest strength was always its variegated approach. Helms Alee carefully balances beauty and beast. It is at times hypnotic and meditative but also given to frequent and volcanic bouts of heaviness. Consider “A New Roll,” the finest track from Helms Alee’s 2008 debut Night Terror: It’s all dramatic mood swings, traveling from a jangling buildup to thrusting, metallic crunch marked by Verellen’s burly lumberjack roar, then dissolving into a shoegazy stratospheric drone, with James’ and Margulis’ glistening harmonies floating above Verellen’s washy guitar.
But what made Helms Alee so exciting also made it frustrating at times. The band’s bracing mix of post-everything — post-hardcore’s thrust, post-punk’s icy nerviness, post-metal’s brawn, post-rock’s scope — and jangly indie rock was too often more intriguing than exhilarating. Its disparate ideas were too unsettled, and the seams that sewed them together were sometimes ungainly. While never a liability, the band’s democracy — “There’s not a whole lot of calculation, or division of duties” in Helms Alee’s songwriting process, Verellen told KEXP in January — was both a blessing and a curse. Helms Alee didn’t closely resemble any one band, but as too many cooks spoil the broth, too many voices pulled the songs it too many whiplashing directions. Fittingly, Helms Alee’s first few records were released by Hydra Head.
Hydra Head shuttered after releasing Helms Alee’s interesting if inconsistent Weatherhead in 2011. The band now calls Sargent House home, but the songs on Sleepwalking Sailors predate even the release of Weatherhead. Helms Alee spent three and a half years piecing together Sleepwalking Sailors, and it appears that protracted time was beneficial. Largely gone are the glaring seams that held together Helms Alee’s broad pastiche. That much is readily apparent from the outset: Opener “Pleasure Center” surges and abates equally, racing from math-rock-ish lockstep into furious bursts of Neurosis-heavy distortion. Margulis’ oddly accented drum pattern gives the quiet moments a careening momentum, and her snappy strikes during the song’s fuzzy outbursts underpin the weighty riffs delivered by Verellen and James. In just over three minutes, it touches on a number of variegated styles and abrasive textures, but its complexity doesn’t compromise its approachability. It’s both nakedly aggressive and markedly accessible, and, unlike much of Weathered in particular, Helms Alee synthesizes both in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
Most strikingly, Helms Alee sustains that duality throughout Sailors. “Pinniped” pinballs between a droning middle-register lick, jangly arpeggios and loud-rock ballast; at its end, it alternates light and dark between every bar, not so much as abbreviated verses and choruses but like the extreme pitch-and-yaw parabola of a reduced gravity aircraft. “Dangling Modifiers” drifts from the staccato bursts of a tick-tocking hammer-on riff and wicked tom rolls to a soporific shoegazy haze. But just as Verellen’s arcing, tremolo-picked melody is reaching its apex, the song’s bottom falls out, five jabbing chords announcing its sucker-punch ending.
Much of Sailors operates this way, songs making abrupt turns from pummeling post-hardcore to soothing panoramas, or subtly shifting into triple harmonies without the listener even realizing what has happened. Those quieter moments aren’t feints, aren’t idyllic interludes: James’ breathless shouts at the end of “Heavy Worm Burden” add another layer of desperation to an already thick climax, a mélange of cymbal washes and bending-note guitar squeals. Elsewhere, her monastic incantations enhance the calm of the windswept “Crystal Gale,” her sweet croon offering a salve to Verellen’s throaty bark and sludgy fuzz.
Album closer “Dodge the Lightning” features chamber-like harmonies from James and Margulis in the song’s eye-of-the-storm middle section, Verellen’s guitar, heavy with modulated reverb and whammy-bar vibrato, adding extra atmosphere. The song ends abruptly after a last-gasp barrel-rolling closing section, Margulis’ sharp snare rolls cutting through Verellen’s palm-muted power chords — like a toothy maw, akin to the one that lurks in the darkness on the album cover, finally closing shut and suffocating the light.
In Sleepwalking Sailors, Helms Alee still crams a lot of ideas into small spaces, but in a far more focused, more certain way. Having really locked into its unique groove, having smoothed some of the seams its stitched-together songwriting, Helms Alee fulfills the potential of its first few records. On Sleepwalking Sailors, Helms Alee finally feels bigger than the sum of its parts.