By Eli Shively, General Manager
[Sargent House; 2016]
Key Tracks: “Unintoxicated,” “Dream Long”
“Honing your craft” — three words many musicians use with pride when referring to sharpening technical chops or mastering the songwriting process. It is not, however, a phrase commonly heard out of the mouths of those on the aggressive end of the spectrum, players who push things to the brink of hard fast loud-ness, precision be damned.
No one told Seattle sludge-rockers Helms Alee this, however. They consistently turn anything and everything up to 11 while at the same time approaching songwriting from a uniquely angular standpoint, their sound equal parts in your face and over your head. The trio has released a total of four full-length LPs over eight years, “honing their craft” every step of the way and developing into the well-oiled machine that can be heard on their latest, Stillicide.
“Unintoxicated,” the record’s true opener, is equal parts introduction and trial by fire — if Helms Alee don’t match a particular listener’s tastes, they’ll know within seconds. Those who find their math-y approach to sludge riffs and grooves entertaining, however, will be hooked from the very start. The band settles into a groove, layers a meandering vocal melody on top, and rips through the arrangement at a tempo just fast enough to accentuate its rhythmic complexity.
This formula, however addictive, can get a bit repetitive by the middle of the LP. By the time the title track breaks into a polyrhythmic explosion of percussion and screaming lead, any surprise and bewilderment the listener experiences is clouded by an air of “Oh great, this again?” There are a few changes of pace further down the tracklist, namely the standout “Dream Long,” but the paint-by-numbers approach unfortunately develops into something more tiring than atmospheric.
However minor of a gripe this may be, it has the potential to put a damper on all the technical proficiency that’s on display here. Helms Alee have created a dark, constantly-moving beast of a record, but for all the musical wow-factor they posses, many songs seem to be lacking in freshness. Helms Alee have sharpened their skills to a point fine enough to instrumentally dazzle, and they seem to be primed and ready to break the whole thing wide open. They just need the ambition and confidence to actually go through with it.