Words by Jordan Martich
As Seattle-based band Helms Alee tours in support of their newest album Stillicide, experiences are becoming unbelievable for drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis.
This is their longest tour to date, and they've been juxtaposed with sludge-riff legends The Melvins for almost two months, meeting up with longtime comrades Russian Circles afterward. Awestruck at performing on the same bill as a band she's admired for so long, Matheson-Margullis was floored when all of Helms Alee was asked to close out the show by playing along supergroup style to “Night Goat,” reworking the classic song into a loud, magnificent event.
“It is real big deal to me. They have been my favorite band since I was 13,” said Matheson-Margullis. “That's 22 years of my life that they've consistently been my favorite, through many different changes and phases of my personality.”
Ease and success have not always been the case, however. In 2012 legendary label Hydra Head Records announced that its financial problems had exacted a permanent toll — it could no longer pursue new artists or afford to organize new releases. Fans of the label were devastated. Artists like Oxbow, Jesu, Boris, Converge, Neurosis, and more had been redefining heavy music in artistically innovative ways for 17 years under Hydra Head's banner, crafting quality releases that invigorated part of the vinyl revival.
For Helms Alee — which includes Matheson-Margullis, guitarist Ben Verellen, and bassist Dana James — this meant losing the home where they'd released Night Terror (2008) and Weatherhead (2011). With the future of their releases cast into uncertainty, they began to work on self-releasing by starting their own record label, an arduous venture that took up much of their energy. Matheson-Margullis remembers feeling frustrated with the time taken away from the writing process. Drained, the band was relieved when they found a deal with Sargent House to release 2014's Sleepwalking Sailors.
“When Sleepwalking Sailors was made it was all-encompassing and a really intense time because we knew that we didn't want to give up,” Matheson-Margullis. “We were proud of the songs and we wanted them to be released in a proper way.”
Sailors propelled Helms Alee to a new level of attention, earning favor with headbanging metal fans and brainy post-rock devotees alike. With this year's Stillicide, they conjure the same headlong riffage as they stretch further into zones of experimentation. Matheson-Margullis admits that finding Sargent House gave them ample space to dive into the music this time.
“Making Stillicide, there was a similar amount of personally applied pressure, but it all got to go toward writing a record that we were really proud of,” she said. “There's a lot less on our plate when we have [Sargent House] backing us up.”
Out of chaos and confusion the band championed big chords into elaborate songs on Sailors; from comfort they churned experimental ideas into an ominous web on Stillicide. Darker themes and experimental directions mark this record as a refined portrait of Helms Alee's sound — 10 years of work wrapped into a model package. They've summoned again the sound that puts their name on marquees next to contemporaries like Torche, Young Widows, and Big Business, attributable in part to Verellen's boutique amp company Verellen Amplifiers and the signature tones he creates.
Even as the shape of Helms Alee is readily apparent, the overwhelming theme of Stillicide is foreboding and mysterious, more so than its predecessor. This darkness comes from out of the recording process itself, having taken place at God City Studios in Salem, Mass., with Kurt Ballou of post-hardcore progenitors Converge. On the studio's website, Ballou describes its location as “the heart of Witch City,” and when Matheson-Margullis compared demos that the band had made prior to their studio visit to the finished product she immediately felt that influence.
“There is a historical darkness there that's undeniable. You can feel it,” she said. “I can't help but feel like Salem wiggled its way onto the album. That darkness crept into the actual finished product.”
Present in the ethereal drone of songs like “Dream Long,” or the Rush-esque instrumental fantasy haze of “Worth Your Wild,” we're seeing the tenured skill set of Helms Alee at work combining genre defining techniques and tones to create something exquisite. The trio's strength comes from the various backgrounds and influences that each member brings to the table and the decade of work together that's honed the melding operations of their writing process. Each member also offers a unique vocal style that fits within whatever aperture the song opens, adding a unique identity to songs that flawlessly merge disparate genres into solid units. This is a record of growth, unknown futures, and unclear pathways, pushing the shadows against the light to become fully realized.
“Things have become more natural and our styles have really grown into each other,” said Matheson-Margullis. “When I listen back on our old records I feel that musically we've become one.”
Jordan Martich is a writer and musician living in Oakland. He drinks too much coffee and doesn't go to the beach enough.
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