“Pleasure Center” works like a rollercoaster: At the start of Sleepwalking Sailors,the third album by Washington state trio Helms Alee, Ben Verellen’s electric guitar picks up speed by slowing down, its single note swelling into a carbuncle of feedback. The drums canter in, and the band clips along amicably enough—that is, at least, until they race temporarily into bursts of irascible distortion and screams. Helms Alee backs out, but only to rush in again. This back-and-forth continues across the song’s full three minutes. Bass builds and disappears. Guitars lash and abate. Momentum flashes and fades. It's also a thrill ride, where the song twists not only through parts but also turn through varied styles—a touch of stoner metal in the tumescent bass, of math-rock in the latticework guitar, of hardcore in the clinched vocals, of girl-group pop in the supporting harmonies. The song swivels so much that you can imagine the band drawing blueprints to build it. But the complexity does not limit the tune’s impact or approachability, making it a new feat of communion for Helms Alee.
Helms Alee spent more than three years writing parts and songs for what became Sleepwalking Sailors, meaning that they were at work on it before Weatherhead arrived in the summer of 2011. That makes sense, as Weatherhead, even more than Helms Alee’s 2008 debut, suggests a potpourri of unsettled ideas. There is bracing post-hardcore and primeval indie rock, soporific drift and phosphorescent post-rock. All of those elements weren’t split into songs of their own so much as crammed into the same space, like strangers compelled into roommate status. On those first two records, Helms Alee felt like an intriguing collective caught up in a particular post-everything moment, more focused on the possibilities than the power of what they were making.
You can still find the seams throughout Sleepwalking Sailor, their most aggressive but accessible album yet. Helms Alee doesn’t slough any of its previous interests wholesale, and each aspect of their musical personality is too distinct to camouflage with the rest. But the seams now crisscross in brilliantly unsuspected patterns, giving each element its space and the benefit of contrast. In spite of its moribund name, “Fetus.Carcass” starts rather softly, with Dana James’ Siouxsie Sioux-like coo stretched over a heavy rhythmic lumber. Twice during the song, though, Verellen barks over an italicized onslaught, a menacing shock spliced into the surgical reverie. The shifts are jarring, yes, but they fit well, presaged by ruptures in the meter and slowly evolving transitions. “Dangling Modifiers” is a delight of stylistic tension, revealed in a rather novel fashion. For most of the song, the band locks into one cycle, with a series of staccato guitar notes expertly wound between Hozoji Matheson-Margullis’ ever-roiling drums. The pattern shifts slightly, but even toward the end, when the drums slow and the guitars smear, the variation on the song’s only musical theme is clear. But the trio, though, seesaws between Verellen’s hoarse, doom-ready roar, and his best approximation of perfectly droll indie rock. The male-female antiphony of “Crystal Gale” hints at a Breeders outtake, especially when there’s only a simply strummed electric guitar supporting the harmonies. But when an enormous bass bleed delivers reinforcement, the band’s basic interests in heaviness and catchiness align for a minute of wonderful clarity. If that sort of seemingly unforced synthesis was the goal of Helms Alee’s first two records, Sleepwalking Sailor finally fulfills the ambition.
Halfway into “Pleasure Center”, during one of those accelerated moments, Verellen lets out the mightiest scream of the album. In real-time, it sounds like a tantrum—you know, a metal dude, snapping some metal-dude thing. But listen again and maybe again, and you’ll notice that he actually yells, “I want my MTV,” however disassembled the syllables may be. That playful feint encapsulates what’s best about Helms Alee on Sleepwalking Sailor: They cram a lot of unexpected assets into rather short songs, but that density no longer feels uncertain and unfocused. Not unlike SubRosa on last year’s More Constant Than The Gods or even Torche at their best,they’ve learned to combine their influences while largely hiding the effort required. That is, you first notice the thrill of the rollercoaster and only later pause to contemplate its mechanics.