Radiohead hasn’t released an album since 2011. Porcupine Tree hasn’t made one since 2009. Tool? 2006. At the Drive-In, 2000. This album isn’t like any of theirs. That’s fortunate, since those four bands aren’t much alike. And yet…it is very interested in finding new routes to some of the same places we shared with them.
It’s Sleepwalking Sailors by Helms Alee!
Yesterday, Gabe wrote about building musical monuments by being gentle, welcoming, and singing about bluebirds. Turns out you can also build musical monuments by screaming at the carcasses of your enemies.
Sleepwalking Sailors is the best, most enjoyably complicated metal album this year. It’s filled with ideas from other genres, built from catchy hooks that don’t stay long before they’re yanked out for something new. In its own way, Helms Alee has made the metal equivalent of an indie rock album.
“New West” is a favorite of ours. It announces itself as if we’ve caught it in slow motion, mid action, before turning to balance guitar hooks that shift like sand against vocals only passingly interested in the dominant key. Bridges informed by speed metal lead to vocals that would sound perfectly at home in a Tears for Fears album if every other phrase weren’t screamed. It’s a vocally genius performance that shouldn’t work from Hozoji Margullis (also the drummer), with Ben Verellen on screams.
Joining them is bassist Dana James (who also sings), but it rarely feels as if this is only a three-person job. It’s not just their musical heaviness that would make you think this. Every song travels through genres and architectures, informed not just by heavy metal but by 80s pop, English alternative, post-hardcore, and even swing and surf rock.
Take “Slow Beef,” for instance, and not just because that’s a funny phrase to say. “Slow Beef” opens with a relaxed swing phrase before a moment of thinking it might be speed metal when it grows up. Then it plays off the broader chords of each musical phrase to transition into a two-minute ambient soundscape. At the two-minute mark, there’s a blink and you’ll miss it shift into a detached, drums-and-vocal landscape reminiscent of dream rock bands like Esben and the Witch. It’s bridged to a briefly traditional guitar solo by an intercession of math rock. Underneath attacking guitars and roiling drums, its last minute is gently re-framed by an underlying synth-pop background that comes straight from The Cure.
It should all seem like a seven year-old making up a story on the fly: “And then, and then, and then.” It should be too much too quickly. Instead, it’s all so well constructed, each phrase and shift contributing to an atmospheric whole, that even when the changes in tempo and instrumentation are violently sudden, they feel seamless.
Helms Alee also brings up something crucial about the music industry: indigenous artists aren’t just overlooked, they’re entirely ignored. Some are making the best and most challenging music out there today, folding new techniques and modern genres into musical traditions that survive because of their strengths in telling stories. You can’t lump indigenous artists into a single category and say they share the same approach, but you can look at the industry, wonder why they’re missing on every page, on every site, in every video that gets pushed, and correct that mistake by acknowledging a broader range of fantastic music that’s being made.
We’ll be doing a whole lot more of that in this Best of 2014 list, by the way.
– S.L. Fevre, Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez