, March 10th, 2014 09:37
Of all the bands associated with the Hydra Head label in its dying days, Helms Alee were the band I worried for the most. This hugely talented trio had produced two of the finest - and most underrated – albums of the last decade in Night Terrors and Weatherhead; albums that defied categorisation and easy assimilation, and were the work of tremendously committed musicians that deserved mass attention and acclaim.
Yet with the demise of Hydra Head it seemed it wasn’t meant to be. How good it feels to be wrong. Safely ensconced on new label Sargent House, Helms Alee have delivered their finest album to date in Sleepwalking Sailors – a fierce and combustible collection that is a huge advance on the already dizzying heights of Weatherhead. That album's implacable heft has been allied to a more compact and melodic attack, new-found anthemic aspects in perfect sync with the band's sludge-oriented bluster.
The opening salvo of 'Pleasure Center' and the aptly named 'Tumescence' are amongst the most powerful of the band's career; huge blasts of searing rock, slathered with hulking bass lines by the irrepressible Dana James and guitarist Ben Verellen's patented stinging sourness – a weapon that has served him well since his time with the brilliant Harkonen, another long-lost cult Hydra Head outfit.
The vocal interplay from James, Verellen and Hozoji Margulis brings another refreshing and infectious component to each song. The soaring choruses of 'Heavy Worm Burden' and 'Crystal Gale' are perfect hook-laden pop gems, their melodies gleefully peeking out from within blast furnace power chords and brutal in-the-pocket drumming. The band's skills are displayed at a career apex here, bristling with an ease-fulness that some bands work their entire lives for to never achieve.
The band stands its ground and plays its most direct and impactful material with a bold simplicity that enhances the group's already considerable attributes. Verellen possesses one of the most awe-inspiring voices in contemporary metal: the bellicose roars that feature so prominently on Sleepwalking Sailors are things of brutal beauty. Its confident shape-shifting compositional power and instrumental thunder make for one of 2014's most immediate and satisfying releases.