There’s a notion that, as their career progresses, heavy bands tend to soften, pursuing a more experimental and dynamically lighter direction as they mature. For Seattle psych-sludge slingers Helms Alee, it’s not as much a case of them getting softer, but stranger.
Although fat, buzzing stoner riffs still beat at the heart of the trio’s music, the band’s fifth full-length sees them embrace all things light and lilting, dipping into drifting dream-pop and sparkling swells of synth. That’s not to say they can’t still summon heaving, seasick sludge – but when they do it’s in the vein of the hook-laden stylings of Torche rather than the grimacing dourness of Eyehategod.
Opener ‘Interachnid’ starts things as they mean to go on; bright guitar layers are jostled and bruised by Hozoji Matheson-Margullis’ leaden tom thud. Snaking cymbals usher in stabbing riffs, opening into a deep groove, layered vocals reinforcing the bands’ nautical bent proclaiming “you know worse things happen at sea”. It’s infectiously rhythmic, shifting through stoner drives and fat bass before settling down into a puff of distant, ghostly guitars. ‘Beat Up’ groans under the weight of Dana James’ swollen bass fuzz, the track lumbering under Ben Verellen’s signature hoarse howl. It’s an unstoppable roller, punctured by squalls of squealing guitars and militaristic snare rolls.
Elsewhere, ‘Play Dead’ builds upon steady single notes, a turn of upbeat, bouncing drumming ushering in a chaotic, jagged groove straight out of the Lightning Bolt playbook; galloping snares intimidating the trembling guitars, before blooming out into a gentle, sun kissed upland. ‘Be Rad Tomorrow’ ebbs and flows with considered bass-work and sombre vocals, with weightless, airy sections slowly condensing, buoyed by swelling synths and shimmering guitars. ‘Lay Waste, Child’ sits heavy below the water line with stomping drums and single plucked bass notes, the rhythmic riptide too strong to resist, ending with chant-like spoken word rounds.
‘Illegal Guardian’ climbs ever higher, moving from steadily rising drums to needling guitars, injecting a nervous tension that resolves into a rushing climax and the distant sounds of the lap of waves. ‘Spider Jar’’s lilting, echo-drenched guitars add a wistful air reinforced by melodious vocals and burbling synths. ‘Pleasure Torture’ bristles with buzzing bass hook, a darker, slightly unsettled track with shuddering, descending drum fills that worry at your ankles. ‘Pandemic’ lows with bass undertow, cymbals crashing and drawing over incessantly whining guitar, evolving into a summery heat haze. Closer ‘Word Problem’ hammers in with a snarling groove, a riff-heavy nodder proving the trio can still bring the thunder of a lurching drive.
Noctiluca doesn’t see the Alee three sailing too far from their home waters; the ear for melody and hefty rhythm section baseplate haven’t gone anywhere, and their penchant for dreamy, spiralling guitars has grown exponentially. Although perhaps hampered at times by a mix that favours the delicate nature of their lighter work and smooths out any potential lower depths a little too effectively, it’s abundantly clear that the trio adhere to the old maxim that a ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.
Noctiluca is out now on Sargent House. Purchase here.
Words: Jay Hampshire