We all love opposites. We love the crunch of Oreo cookies’ dark outsides and we love their white, creamy centers. We love it when Steven Tyler sings, “Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down” on “Love in an Elevator.” And in rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle, we love Tom Hanks and disdain Meg Ryan (like, a lot).
Opposites create tension and friction, and tension and friction create heat and energy. Helms Alee has harnessed that hot heat to create energetic tunes that are as ballsy as they are beautiful, tunes that crush eardrums with crusty sub-sonic bass growls, brutal screams and warlike drums. But the trio can also cause one to ruminate about what life would be like inside a well-decorated treehouse through arpeggios dripping with the echo of reverb and somber female harmonies. The band can shift the mood in mere seconds or over the course of an entire album. It does this without a trace of gimmickry. In other words, Helms Alee doesn’t veer tonally just to show us it can, but because it sounds as if it always should.
Helms Alee is a six-year-old trio based out of Seattle made up of drummer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis, bassist Dana James and guitarist Ben Verellen. Total Fest fans are likely aware that Verellen was in the influential post-hardcore outfit Harkonen while Matheson-Margullis also performs in the duo Lozen. The local familiarity goes both ways, as the band members say they’re down with Missoula, as well.
“Total Fest is definitely held dear by Helms Alee,” Matheson-Margullis writes in an email interview. “We have close friends in town. Getting to ice our nuts in the river with them and all the awesome bands that travel to the Fest is something we look forward to all year long.”
It’s a shame that Helms Alee’s latest visit is for the show that’s closing down the area’s only viable all-ages rock ’n ’roll venue. The March 30 Zoo City Apparel blowout is a fundraiser for Total Fest and a goodbye to the space. The shuttering of Zoo City means all-ages shows will likely return to the basements of college-aged kids’ rentals, where things can get pretty drunk and high. Sure, plenty of folks got their toot on at Zoo City, and maybe that girl I once saw splayed out in the corner vomiting in her purse probably had a tough time in her economics class the next day, but overall the space was a safe, cuckoo fun place to see amazing touring and local acts.
All-ages venues like Zoo City Apparel also serve as incubators for youngsters seeking inspiration and direction, and that’s not lost on Helms Alee. Matheson-Margullis explains how the Capitol Theater in Olympia, Wash., shaped her musical path.
“It was the all-ages venue that showed me most of my favorite music when I was a bun,” she writes. “I was 15 years old when I got my drum kit and just months later I saw both Unwound and Karp.”
Those early influences helped inform Helms Alee’s sound. When Matheson-Margullis is asked to describe the band, she references a friend who calls it “raw, powerful and fun.” It’s an apt description, and part of the reason Total Fest founder Josh Vanek says the event’s planning committee invited Helms Alee to headline the Zoo City blowout. “They’re a thoroughly awesome and kind of jaw-droppingly inspiring band that has to be seen live to be fully appreciated, and it’s been too long since anybody’s gotten a chance to do that around here,” Vanek says.
Helms Alee has a lot of new material, but no record label as Hydra Head Records ceased releasing new albums. No matter, though. The band launched a Kickstarter campaign to help record and release a third full-length, Sleepwalking Sailors. The fundraiser surpassed its goal of $5,000 just this week. People can still donate to receive a copy of the release.
Matheson-Margullis describes the new tracks as “more adventurous” in terms of melody. “But none of us can resist distorted power chord riffs,” she adds. “So there’s still plenty of that.”
As the band gets in its van to race across the eastern Washington scablands for its current tour, Matheson-Margullis describes how it will all go down: “Dana and I sing Campfire Girls songs for the boys [Verellen and a roadie] for the first few hours. Then we argue about things we agree on for a while. Then we usually break out some ’90s R&B to heat up the mood before we roll into town.”
It’s not hard to imagine one last white Ford Econoline van rolling into the Zoo City Apparel parking lot, blaring Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly” and Helms Alee singing along. “Motownphilly’s back again / Doin’ a little east coast swing / Boyz II Men going off / Not too hard, not too soft.”