Helms Alee, and 2008

Posted by othiym23 Sat, 10 Jan 2009 10:36:48 GMT

I feel pretty bad for sleeping on the recent record from Helms Alee – a slumber that would have continued indefinitely had it not been for my friend Nick, who misses Helms Alee’s forbears more keenly than me, I guess. The guitarist for this Seattle band was also a guitarist and the singer for those yeoman devotees of 5/4 sludge, Harkonen, who in Grizz released one of the most refined distillations of Hydra Head’s then-burgeoning sensitive yet hairy post-hardcore sound.

Some of Harkonen’s gutbucket punk survives in Helms Alee, but as the Melvillean band name indicates, the newer band isn’t so urgently straightforward. It’s a fairly skeletal 3-piece with the aforementioned guitar-singer and a drummer and bass player, both of whom are women, and both of whom also sing. Like a lot of the newer post-metal bands, their songs seem to grow out of jams and follow no particularly schematic path, but unlike a lot of the other recent Hydra Head bands, Helms Alee understand the value of concision, and the songs don’t ramble.

Night Terror is a near-perfect debut – it has a rough-hewn looseness I recognize from time spent hanging out in a practice space with a couple guitars, a big heap of effects pedals, and a stoned drummer (fans of Harkonen’s time-signature trickery will not be disappointed by Helms Alee), and it wears its influences unashamedly, without particularly drawing attention to them. Bits of Karp, the Pixies, Neurosis, Jawbox, Swans and the like knit themselves together without visible seams, and the band tries on a whole bunch of vocal approaches, ranging from the old urgent yawps of Harkonen to beautiful (if rough) multi-part harmonies. Whoever recorded the record clearly loves drums, and the engineering puts all three members of the band on an equal footing, which gives the performances a strong ensemble feel, which in turn reminds me of Fugazi and their ability to get a jazz feel out of punk songs.

In sum, this is the sort of record that’s practically guaranteed to get a sympathetic hearing from me, and combined with the evocative and poetic lyrics and a couple of sturdy, gorgeous post-rock singles (“A Weirding Away” and “Grandfather Claws”), this has me retroactively declaring this to be one of my favorite records from 2008, even though I didn’t hear it until this week.

It fits in neatly with 2 of my 3 other favorites from 2008, and for posterity’s sake I’ll give my unordered list of my 4 favorite records from 2008 here:

  1. Fucked Up: The Chemistry of Common Life
  2. asbestoscape: s/t
  3. Helms Alee: Night Terors
  4. Clark: Turning Dragon

And here’s an unsorted list of other 2008 releases I thought were pretty great for one reason or another:

  1. Breeders: Mountain Battles
  2. Dusk & Blackdown: Margins Music
  3. Portishead: Third
  4. Vivian Girls: s/t
  5. Gojira: The Way of All Flesh
  6. Genghis Tron: Board Up the House
  7. Lil’ Mama: VYP: Voice of the Young People
  8. Arckanum: Antikosmos
  9. Avigail: The Other Side
  10. Boris: Smile
  11. Cadence Weapon: Afterparty Babies
  12. Earth: The Bee Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull
  13. Gas: Nah und Fern
  14. Hollywood Holt: Holt Goes to Hollywood
    1. Bannon: The Blood of Thine Enemies
  15. JME: Famous?
  16. Krallice: s/t
  17. M83: Saturdays = Youth
  18. Matmos: Supreme Balloon
  19. Meshuggah: obZen
  20. Omit: Interceptor
  21. Slagmaur: Svin
  22. Soilent Green: Inevitable Collapse in the Presence of Conviction
  23. Sparks: Exotic Creatures of the Deep
  24. Zomes: s/t

…but to put things that way misses what my 2008 was actually like. I started the year with the goal of listening my way through my music collection, but in February discovered the wilds of Blogspot’s MP3 blogs, and ended up spending a large chunk of the year listening to the esoteric detritus of about 40 years’ worth of underground (or at least underheard) music. I spent the better part of 2008 listening to hundreds of hours of music for the first time and then moving on to the next thing – a uniquely exhausting experience.

The most exhausting aspect of living in a state of perpetual novelty is the deeply frustrating recognition that an awful lot of what I heard (Mnemonists, Organum, Roland Kayne, HNAS, Sparks, the Flying Lizards) was sophisticated, complex music that would reward repeated, close listening and just not having the time to give it the attention it deserves.

It’s been said before and it’s going to get said a lot more: we live in an era of unparalleled cultural production, and unlike pretty much every prior era of human culture, we’ve got the means and inclination to hold onto pretty much everything we produce. Music is a much more populist concern than it’s been, historically speaking, and despite being a largely popular artform is also much less ephemeral. There is absolutely no way to stay on top of it anymore – you have to pick your battles, and I find it very hard to choose.

This year cracked the bindings on what’s left of my tastes (I even spent a lot more time listening to jazz, which has been my traditional blind spot), and I am now completely powerless to concretely describe what kind of music I like except in a very vague, Potter Stewart-ish way of saying I know it when I hear it. At the same time, spending so much time with stuff that was last hip – if it ever was – about 20 years ago helped me see with a crystalline clarity how much of the musical discourse surrounding us all is driven by fashion. I really could not give a fuck less about 90% of the music I see discussed, even by critics I wholeheartedly respect.

The difficulty I find in writing this blog is rooted in that fact. Thanks to the work of MP3 blogs like Mutant Sounds and No Longer Forgotten Music, I’ve been able to weave an impenetrable web of reference around myself, and to talk about it in ways anyone outside my head can understand, I need to develop a concrete vocabulary for talking about some very amorphous sounds. It’s a worthwhile task, but one that’s frustrating and exhausting, and it’s really been enough work just finding and listening to all this stuff (and, you know, living the rest of my life). All I can say is that I’ll keep working on it.

But enough of that. 2008 was a demanding year in a lot of ways (most having nothing to do with music), but I can’t help but feel that it showed the way to a more productive and interesting 2009 and 2010. I’ll do what I can to realize that promise, and I hope you have the energy to do the same.