Review Summary: Helms Alee's third LP is a mass collective of otherwise incongruent influences that, when combined, breathe new life into the sludge metal formula.
At first glance, Helms Alee is your typical sludge metal band. They were raised in Seattle, hometown of sludge metal kings The Melvins
and the birthplace of grunge. Their music features a lot of rough vocals, droning guitars, and heavy rhythms. They appear to be just another sludgy trio looking to brood and creep across the metal scene.
But they’re not.
Despite being educated in the way of proto and early grunge, Helms Alee tear the sludge metal cookbook to shreds, bathing the genre in soaring post-rock distortion and nimble prog metal fluidity. The result is the group’s third album, Sleepwalking Sailors
, a record that enlists more influences than you can count and delivers a sound that confidently and comfortably sits within its own altered state.
The mass array of influences and sounds are easily Sleepwalking Sailors
’ strongest feature. Helms Alee takes such a huge assortment of influences and mashes them together into a purely creative and fascinating form. Many of the songs follow the sludge metal trends: very heavy riffs, guttural vocals from guitarist Ben Verellen (former guitarist for Harkonen
) and a consistent use of thumping, stomping drum rhythms from drummer Hoziji Margullis. The Seattle trio produces weighted, sluggish riffs, taking strong influence from Seattle-based proto-grungers The Melvins. The fuzzed out tones in the first few passages of “Animatronic Bionic” are taken right from the book of late 80’s Seattle rock, drenched in intensity and warped, abrasive guitars. The climactic ending to “Dodge the Lightning” bursts with metal identity, a loud fury worthy of the final word.
But Sleepwalking Sailors
is not a sludge metal album. Well, I should say it’s not just
a sludge metal album. The influences tear through convention at nearly every chance; everything from progressive metal polyrhythms to distorted, shoegazing guitar walls to melodic alternative rock arrangements are here. Helms Alee develop a constantly curious sound; using so many influences, Sleepwalking Sailors
is a multi-faceted and frequently surprising album. One of the best tracks on the album, the opener “Pleasure Center” mixes the roughness of metal riffs and rhythm with ascendant post-rock texture and ambience-laden vocal climbs. “Heavy Worm Burden” soars atop shoegaze distortion, while Margullis’ clean, psalmic vocals refresh the rougher aesthetic produced by Verellen’s screams and draw influence from female-fronted grunge bands like L7
The toned guitar notes and the rising slides from Verellen’s vocals echo the melodic, alternative experimentation of Sparta
(in fact, Verellen’s vocals sound very similar to Sparta vocalist Jim Ward’s, albeit rougher). Fuzzy guitar squeals and jangly chords appear in “New West” taking cues from both early 90’s Soundgarden
and late 2000’s alternative rock. On the technical side, the rhythms are rarely stationary on Sleepwalking Sailors
. Bassist Dana James produces a fluid and amorphous sense of pacing that comes alive when combined with the low bass thumps and jazzy jumps of Margullis’ drums.
But despite this cavalcade of unique influences, Sleepwalking Sailors
displays fortitude to this expansive brew. The group might have a huge amount of ideas circulating in their minds, but the resulting combination of those sounds stays pretty consistent throughout the album, perhaps a bit too much so. Aside from some superb and memorable moments in songs like “Pleasure Center”, “Tumescence” and “Heavy Worm Burden”, the song-specific risks are actually rather few. While the overarching musical aesthetic isn’t like anything else out there, the album feels more like a superb, singular package, a lengthy demonstration of the group’s desire to cross genres and challenge convention. In essence, Sleepwalking Sailors
is best enjoyed as a complete album and not as individual songs.
is one of the most bizarre experiments to ever come from sludge metal. Helms Alee have already proven their proficiency with Seattle-inspired brooding and warped grime, but with post-rock, prog metal and alt rock influences, the album is an outright challenge to the genre itself. Fuzzed-out guitar walls burst past heavy riffs, jazzy rhythms dance across droning vocals, and clean melody appears behind screeching solos. Despite all that, the album is a focused and healthy endeavor, and while the songs could use more distinction from each other, Helms Alee show an equipped and versatile sound with Sleepwalking Sailors
, a captivating sound that’s gritty, but pure; loose, but intense. A pleasant surprise from start to finish, Helms Alee’s third LP is a hypnotically curious record.