4 out of 5
Label: Hydra Head
Produced by: Matt Bayles
What a sludgey, glorious, mess. Weatherhead, Helms Alee’s sophomore outing, finds the group growing more comfortable with melding their influences – stoner metal, shoegaze – to the VOLUME of guitarist / singer Ben Verellen’s Harkonen and the general output of then-label Hydra Head. It’s this latter tag that I think stymies the group a bit, as you can hear them truly wrestling with which direction to take, falling back into hefty posturing (with some bleep-blop tweaking by producer Matt Bayles) at points when the alternating dirge and reverb dynamic works incredibly well for them otherwise, resulting in quite the herky-joke of tones across the disc’s 14 tracks. Occasionally this weirds out into punk or a likely unintentional flash of rap-rock on 8/16, but throughout the whiplash styles, there’s a passion and intensity here that just rips out of the stereo. I winked at Bayles’ electronic penchants, but he’s really an all-star on Weathehead, letting the group breathe while polishing the very edges with his usual precision, resulting in a sound that’s closer to the rawness with which Ballou would later record the band.
Something else quite unique to the album, amongst Helms’ oeuvre, is that no one distinctively emerges as an all-star at any given point. The trio is very much a group, on every disc, but elsewhere, Verellen will temporarily grab the spotlight to shred (on guitar or vocals), or Dana James’ earthquake bass will take over, or Hozoji Margullis’s drumkit insanity will be unleashed, and yet, Weatherhead maintains the same level of power of any given HA song without these momentary highlights. It’s not better or worse, it just makes for a slightly different listen, and may be part and parcel with how much of a mixed brew of sounds the album is – which you could argue is carried over to its cluttered album art.
A five star version of this may trim some of the fat down to a more concise, seamless listen, but I’d say that’s at a loss of hearing a band grow, learning how it wants to wield its mighty sound. Tellingly, the awesomeness of these tracks (maybe excepting those few seconds of rap rock, which the group – for better or worse – seems to call out via a short secret track) holds up after the fact: circling back around to listen to this – along with their other albums – post the release of 2019’s Noctiluca gives us a band always on the move, but always playing to the best of their abilities.