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Monday, September 8, 2008

One Great City!

posted by on September 8 at 11:10 AM


Helms Alee

Night Terror

Hydra Head Records

With their new album, Night Terror, Helms Alee solidifies their place in the Northwest’s musical lineage. From an aural perspective, Helms Alee possesses all the traits of Seattle’s trademark bands. Their sound exploits the entire rock spectrum, but draws their primary inspiration from the less-refined and humble niches of pop culture. Like the grunge icons of the early ‘90s, the band displays both brain and brawn. Like our high profile indie bands of recent years, they understand the marriage of atypical songwriting and a good hook. The band’s raw and stripped down approach can even be traced all the way back to The Sonics. Despite our region’s diverse crop of musical heroes, there is a common thread that binds them together. And that same line runs through Helms Alee.

Until recent times, our geographical isolation from the national touring circuit kept this fair city somewhat out of the loop from the larger pop music world. Seattle was never the kind of destination that markets like LA, NYC or the Bay Area were. We’re not on the way to anywhere, except maybe Vancouver. Yet we’re a port town, a melting pot, a mish-mash of cultures with varied mores and traditions. We’ve always been equal parts rural and cosmopolitan. As Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt pointed out in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, the “white trash aesthetic” of the label’s early roster was a defining element of Seattle. We’re not a city of Lou Reeds. This balance between city and country manifested itself in the local scene by creating a vibrant community with a disdain for pretension and rockstar aspirations. Musicians caught on to bits and pieces of what was going on in the outside world, but didn’t live in a larger creative hub with an accelerated notion of what qualified as “legitimate” art. Our interpretation of pop music came from an outsider’s perspective. Our music was always somewhat damaged and mashed up.

It’s no wonder that Kurt Cobain was so confused and bitter about success. Typically, the music produced in our lonesome corner isn’t really a part of the larger cultural landscape, and yet it’s crafted without contrarian intentions. Cobain’s creative output, like many of the other famed artists of the grunge era, was actually populist at its core. It was simple, easy to understand, unrefined, and brutally honest. It only made sense that “grunge” was such a short-lived phenomenon. The minute it became popular, it had contradicted itself and outlived its usefulness. Seattle dodged the bullet of becoming just another ‘biz town, a sister city to Nashville or Hollywood. Even current heavy-hitters like Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie are industry anomalies. Neither fit the rock-star stereotypes. Both opt to dress down and focus on perfecting their art over their profitability.

So where does Helms Alee fit into all of this? Quite simply, they carry the torch of the Northwest underdog. They are veterans, having served time in an assortment of bands over the last ten years. They’ve taken it slow, opting to play every small show they can while passing on interviews with Clear Channel radio stations. But most importantly, their music strikes a perfect balance between creative ambition and the unapologetic desire to lay siege to their audience. Their unique sound is an amalgam of snatched ideas. Dissimilar bits and pieces pulled from outside sources. “New Roll” starts as a dark exercise in the classic quiet-loud-quiet-loud formula before shifting into a lush and airy melody. The song segues into the anthem-ready fist-pumping fuzz chords and shouted harmonies of “A Weirding Away.” The album closes with “Wild Notes,” a chilling piano ballad that stands out in terms of instrumentation, but perfectly encapsulates Helms Alee’s paradox of beauty and teeming disquiet.

Cobain confessed to lifting ideas from The Pixies, The Melvins, and Bikini Kill—three unrelated bands bound only by their outsider status. Coincidentally, Night Terror sounds as if it could have been drafted from a similar list of inspirations. The surf-guitar twang and male/female vocal trade-offs are reminiscent of The Pixies. The guitar-saturated stomp of The Melvins is mirrored in Helms Alee’s heavier moments. The women of Helms Alee opt to take the less traveled path in terms of acknowledging their gender status in a male-dominated scene. Where many other female artists capitalize on sex appeal, drummer Hozoji Annie Matheson-Margullis and bassist Dana James rarely acknowledge their minority status, except during moments where some asshole chooses to make it an issue. In those instances, the gloves come off. While these confrontations might not match the degree of feminist aggression displayed by Bikini Kill, the fierce rejection of the objectification of band members provides a strong link between the artists.

Helms Alee are not fashionable. They take the stage looking like they’re wearing the same clothes they wore to their day jobs. There performances are honest. Nothing comes across as staged, choreographed, or forced. The musicianship speaks of a band that pushes itself without showboating. There is no gloss. If mainstream success comes to Helms Alee, it will certainly be a shock. But stranger things have happened to Seattle.

Helms Alee play Hell’s Kitchen in Tacoma on Saturday, September 13th.

RSS icon Comments


Helms Alee's record may be the best northwest album of the year. Truly fantastic.

Posted by Andrew C | September 8, 2008 2:43 PM

Best NW album for sure, maybe one of the best albums of the year PERIOD.

Posted by bunnypuncher | September 8, 2008 7:34 PM

Ditto, and ditto.

Posted by Dan | September 8, 2008 11:59 PM

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