Noctiluca showcases the diversity and strength of Helms Alee in a formidable and rewarding album that deserves (and requires) your attention.
Formed in Seattle, Washington and now over a decade into their career, Helms Alee are releasing their fifth LP, Noctiluca. This trio is known for their memorable approach to post-hardcore and grunge, with a dash of noise rock to be found as well. To my ear, there are also some rootsy bits in there too. After hearing the pre-release songs “Interachnid” and “Spider Jar”, my interest was piqued, as the two songs seemed to spring from different parts of the same mind. With a total of ten songs on the record, there’s plenty of room for this group to showcase their style and this is accomplished to great effect on Noctiluca.
One of the things that set Helms Alee apart from other acts that operate in this space is that they have a great amount of flexibility and variety in their vocals. With bassist Dana James, drummer Hozoji Margullis, and guitarist Ben Verellen all contributing, the vocal dynamics can vary greatly from song to song. The opening track “Interachnid” is a cleaner, lighter affair with Verellen abstaining from vocal duties, while “Beat Up” is dominated by his bombastic, punchy baritone. Harmonies are also often employed throughout their catalog, and shine on the final third of “Play Dead.” One of the best things any band can do for their albums is to make them a journey from start to finish and provide varying scenery along the way. So far, Noctiluca is like a drive through the Alps: breathtaking.
Near the midpoint of the record, we hear perhaps the most dynamic and progressive song present in the tracklist, “Be Rad Tomorrow”. Starting with a rolling guitar riff and pounding but reserved drumming, the harmonious vocals of James and Margullis blend together and give this track a haunting beginning. The subtlety subsides and Verellen comes in wailing. Across the song’s six minutes, additional transitions, wrinkles to the rhythm, and spotlight changes for the lead vocals and instruments make this one of my early favorites. Helms Alee has a penchant for knowing how long to push a song before its welcome wears thin, and this one wraps up perfectly.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the absolute beauty that is “Spider Jar”. With its simple melody and a rather unflashy presentation, it stands as one of the most bewitching songs of 2019 so far. The harmonies that are executed on the song, specifically during the chorus, are downright chill-inducing. At three minutes, it’s over far too soon and the repeat button on my media player did get a bit of a workout to queue that song again once it ended. The eeriness continues with “Pleasure Torture” which again sees the female vocals take the front seat, but with a heavier backing from the instrumentation than on any previous song that takes this approach. The whining guitars and lumbering bass riff that underlies the verses of the song are unsettling and take on quite the apocalyptic atmosphere. It’s wonderful.
Helms Alee have put together a set of songs that genuinely deserve your attention with Noctiluca. There is a genuine subtlety to their style that requires that the listener pay attention and soak up each note. When I first starting listening to the record for this review, it took a little time to grasp me, or so I thought. The fact was, it took me a while to grasp it. With diversity and dynamics at play in nearly every song, gorgeous harmonies, and efficient and supportive instrumentation, this album deserves time in your listening schedule.