3 out of 5
Produced by: Sam Bell
Label: Sargent House
Aw dib. I had some doubts going into this, for the dumbest of reasons – the producer – and I’m having a dumb time trying to dissuade myself from falling back on that… but look: Helms Alee, home of Harkonen throat-shredder Ben Verellen and his death-march guitar riffs, the intense pummeling and syncopation of drummer / singer Hozoji Margullis, and the meaty bass playing of Dana James – also contributing vocals – have previously had the boards worked by Chris Common, Matt Bayles, and Kurt Ballou. Now all three of those guys don’t necessarily exclusively stick to one style of band they work with, but they do tend to lean toward the hardcore side of things, and Helms Alee could easily be identified from afar by Verellen’s howl. I’d further note that their debut album was on Hydra Head, which ain’t exactly known for its singer-songwriters.
Now I’m all for growth, but I balked at Noctiluca’s producer: Sam Bell. I liked Minus the Bears’ VOIDS, which Bell handled, but they’re a very different group, and not one whose later incarnation I was necessarily enamored with. Glancing further into Bell’s oeuvre, I find releases / bands I’m actively disinterested in – Snow Patrol, R.E.M., Weezer – that very much define a “safe” sound within their genres. And regarding that MtB album – I can’t say the production did much – from my listening perspective – except not get in the way of what the group had been working on in the albums leading up to that one. (Granted, that can be a desirable skill as well…)
And so we have Noctiluca, which kicks off with some killer tracks – Interachnid is a blaze of percussion with a shoegaze shimmer; Beat Up is a low-end assault in tried and true Helms Alee fashion – but then… it gets safe. Songs will break out with volume in their final portions, but previous HA releases felt charged: there was a forward thrust that would sputter up on the shore of slower, hazier moments before unleashing again, and I don’t get that here. Ben’s contributions are mixed down, and Margullis – still a star, and taking on (or perhaps Dana James…?) a larger percentage of spotlit vocal duties here – but her efforts feel like they’re expended as addendums to longer-running washes of steady beats, woozy guitar, instead of a driving force. Is it growth? I… don’t know. We could call this maturing, but it feels more like stalling: it’s the slower moments that were breathers on previous discs extended to full length, but without the increased depth of sound and emotion I felt Stillicide offered over Sleepwalking Sailors. It’s safe. It’s even. It sounds like Helms Alee in terms of the general tone, but in a blind listen, with the Verellen-screamed songs of yore vs. the sung songs here, I’m not sure I’d identify them as the same band.
Ideally this is something that will bloom after repeated listens, but, damningly, it’s been through those and I find I lose interest around the midpoint of the disc. When I tune back in, I appreciate the craft – it’s undeniably well performed – and there are spots of fury, but whether it was chicken or the egg with Sam Bell taking part, I hope the next release evolves on this sound in some notable way, or merges it back with the intensity I tend to prefer.