In my teen years, I was addicted to consonance: major scales, vocal harmonies and danceable rhythms (did you mean: I loved ska?). But at some point during the past ten years, my music tastes started to lean into the dissonant, the heavy, the dirty and spiraling. I started coming to music to find filth, to soak in washes of feedback and strange, scary intervals. Metal, hardcore and screamo all gave me a great pit to wallow in for noisy and harsh tones, pounding percussion, and vocals that were more energy than anything else.
And now as I approach the age of thirty, I find myself looking more for music that bridges the gap between these camps—pretty but dark, deliberately technical yet driven by the heart. It’s rare to come across an artist that can carry their distinct sound across such distances, but northwestern trio Helms Alee has already conquered that entire territory, and they’ve christened it Noctiluca.
Noctiluca is low-tuned, gritty and powerful. Grindy overdriven bass and droning guitar leads smatter texture across the surface of the pounding mountainous drumming. All three members share vocal duties, blending raspy shouting and resonant cadences into the darkest form of harmony. Helms Alee are purely aggressive in their performances; “Beat Up” has to be named for how the strings and skins feel after the band bashes that jam out.
Even in the quiet parts, there is plenty of energy and movement seething from this record’s edges. Helms Alee focus their writing through groove on Noctiluca, turning the spotlight on rhythms and riffs. The bass and drums intertwine into powerful and percussive currents that keep my head bobbing until my neck is sore. Every song features calculated syncopation or off-kilter time signatures that capture the attention, yet the tune’s flow remains grounded always in powerful, catchy vocal lines.
With their clear technical skills, Helms Alee could make even the most checked-out songwriting sound exciting and eccentric, but this band clearly approaches their composition with the same intensity as their performances. Noctiluca is loaded with different dynamic and energy shifts—no two songs seem to touch on the same sonic territory. Heavy guitar chords collapse into sleepy, delay-drenched leads. Rapid-fire cymbal hits give way to thumping and tantric tom beats. These shifts exist between songs as well as within them: the wild riffs and furious growls of “Pleasure Torture” bloom into sonorous melodics and space-cadet atmosphere in “Pandemic,” which in turn burst into speedy drum rhythms and hectic screams in the closer “Word Problem.”
It is this approach to songwriting that has me so stoked on Helms Alee: they are utterly fearless in the textures and tones they use, so that not a second of Noctiluca sounds derivative or disorganized. Their heavy songs are fucking heavy, and their gentle moments are as airy as pâte à choux. The spindly guitars in “Spider Jar” are as honest as the dissonant distorted chords driving “Word Problem,” because both are distinctly and irrevocably part of the prismatic sound of Helms Alee.
Whether you come to music for hard-hitting riffs, hip-swaying grooves or mind-bending math, this record has you covered. Noctiluca is a distinctive feat in blending opposite energies, carving ornate compositions and filling them with vitriol. Helms Alee are dual-wielding fearless songwriting and honest performance on this album to deadly effect, and I’m both excited and terrified to see what horizons they set their sights on in the future.
My Top Track: “Play Dead”