Helms Alee - Noctiluca review

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Band: Helms Alee
Album: Noctiluca
Release date: April 2019

01. Interachnid
02. Beat Up
03. Play Dead
04. Be Rad Tomorrow
05. Lay Waste Child
06. Illegal Guardian
07. Spider Jar
08. Pleasure Torture
09. Pandemic
10. World Problems

I first encountered Helms Alee in 2014 with their third full-length album, Sleepwalking Sailors, and felt generally positively towards it, albeit with certain reservations. The band dropped off my radar afterwards, releasing an album I completely missed (Stillicide) before coming out with their latest effort, Noctiluca. So, how have Helms Alee developed in the past 5 years?

When I first came across the band, I saw them referred to as a sludge group, but whilst I could maybe see some vague resemblance to lighter sludge bands such as Kylesa on certain songs, it generally didn't seem like that apt a description. It feels even less appropriate now - some thick, heavy riffs turn up on "Word Problem" and (albeit drowned beneath the drums and vocals) "Head Up", but aside from those two songs, the gnarly bass tone, punchier riffs and barked male vocals are far less prominent than on Sleepwalking Sailors.

I'm not entirely sure how best I would describe their sound - some kind of alternative heavy rock, with post-hardcore and noise rock influences perhaps, but a bit far from what I'm familiar with to make useful comparisons. At their core, Helms Alee are a power trio in which all 3 members (1 male, 2 female) make vocal contributions, regularly interchanging between sung and shouted vocals, or effectively pulling off harmonies. Alongside that, you have somewhat subdued, semi-melodic but un-hooky guitar work, and energetic, often tom-heavy drumming. All of this comes together to deliver songs that regularly feel both understated and driven, and this rings true for both their former and present work; however, whilst the style remains the same, the songwriting ambition has been taken up a notch on Noctiluca.

The tracklist arrangement on this album is quite curious; bookended with a collection of sub-4-minute songs, with a trio of extended tracks in the middle. These three songs act as vehicles for Helms Alee to push their limits and experiment with certain additions - the vocal trios on "Lay Waste, Child", the electronic elements on "Be Rad Tomorrow", the chanted/spoken word vocals on "Lay Waste, Child" and "Illegal Guardian" - all within the confines of some rather elaborate arrangements; "Lay Waste" in particular exhibits a degree of post-rock/metal influence, in the way it gradually adds intensity and new elements to a stable musical base. On the flip side, "Spider Jar" is perhaps more overtly conventionally alt rock than anything I've heard from the band, with its clean guitar, restrained drum beats and melodic vocal harmonies.

The variety is definitely a strength of Noctiluca, and a testament to the development of Helms Alee; however, I do think this album lacks some of the memorability of Sleepwalking Sailors, particularly the likes of "Pinniped" and the Jane's Addiction-style guitar of "Tumescence". I'm also not entirely sold by the production; the drums are clearly the powerhouse of this band, but I think at times they can be too prominent in the mix, particularly on "Be Rad Tomorrow", and the actual sound of the drums can be perhaps overly piercing and emphatic to really suit the quieter moments of the album.

Overall, this album fixes or reduces some of the issues I previously had with Helms Alee (particularly the grating shouted vocals, which are both improved and less frequent), but in general, I don't think it's necessarily a step up from Sleepwalking Sailors. However, if you've previously enjoyed the band's work, Noctiluca should still satisfy, whilst demonstrating a band willing to push their sound in new directions.

Rating breakdown
Performance: 8
Songwriting: 7
Originality: 8
Production: 6


Written on 30.04.2019 by Hey chief let's talk why not

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