It’s the contrasts of brute force delivered with a perfectionist’s precision that defines the heavy metal genre at its best. And one of the new headbanging bests just may be Helms Alee. The trio, formed in 2007 and one of Sargent House Records’ hidden gems, is loudly demanding to be noticed, especially touring with headliner Young Widows. On this tour date at Chicago’s Subterranean, it wasn’t clear who the audience was more energized to see.
While tuning before the show, front man Ben Verellen asked the sound man for an adjustment on his microphone.
“I want it to sound like a cave—like a cave in outer space.” Chuckling to themselves, the crowd seemed excited at the idea, and those unfamiliar with Helms Alee were giddy to see just what Verellen meant by that.
The sound man nailed it, and soon so did Helms Alee with a focused and exceptional set that showed their unique brand of metal that manages to be spacey and odd, all the while excelling in the aggression department that metal fans hold so dear. Their style may be so captivating because each member of the band brings something completely different to the final product from instrumentation to shared vocal duties. While Helms Alee is obviously greater than the sum of its parts, each of those parts deserves to be examined in detail because they are all equally incredible.
Like Hozoji Margullis’ style of drumming, which is in a word, mesmerizing. Her influence over the trio became apparent literally seconds into their second song of the night, “Tumecence,” as it snared its way into anyone who hadn’t been sold yet by the band. Margullis may be quirky and silly, having made odd faces and with a jovial interplay with her bandmates throughout the set, but she transformed into a freight train of sound when she sat down behind her drums, calling upon tribal drum patterns and navigating ambitious time signatures—something that tees up the bass work of Dana James and guitar of Ben Verellen just perfectly.
Those who know of Verellen from Harkonen and These Arms Are Snakes might not recognize his current work, as he has evolved significantly since joining Helms Alee. Verellen combines atmosphere and heavy noise, with a twangy quality in his guitar, reminiscent of surf rock, but don’t let that fool you. This is a dark reflective sound; the surf influence complicates it and transforms it to a place that is just a different shade.
Dana James is unquestionably the rock lord of Helms Alee, reigning in all its far-flung experimentation. Throughout the show, James frequently shared the responsibility of carrying melody with Verellen and maintained the element of heaviness in the music while Verellen went off into a spacey jam session. Her bass was loud and forceful, but not a single note was out of place, making it impossible to not marvel at how truly effortless her talent is.
Helms Alee left on a high note with the adoration of an extremely impressed crowd, who recognized their evolution of metal, using it as a springboard to a weird place—a place any music fan would be lucky to explore.