Stillicide manages to achieve what Helms Alee’s previous records could not: atmosphere. The band had the capabilities to craft an environment through their sound. Weatherhead honed in on metal that had a dash of Baroness, while adding hardcore elements that hammered listeners’ ears. Sleepwalking Sailors was an exercise in juggling several genres — math rock, punk, and metal to name a few — while being crushingly visceral. While it is simple to claim that Ben Verellen’s vocals alone bring the band’s warring nature, the Seattle-based band’s true essence comes when their instrumentation pulsates.
The atmosphere created on Stillicide is one that is thunderous and gray. There’s a void in the record that sucks all the positivity. The rock opera sound the album at times generates feels like Swans when they reach their zenith. The crescendo doesn’t suggest something positive or light-hearted, like a battle won. The trio still dabble in multiple genres, but the group do not feel like they have lost their sound. Stillicide can be deemed a continuation of what Sleepwalking Sailors was. This continuation is more dread and stormy.
Helms Alee’s instrumentation conjures images of galley ships attempting to brave massive storms. The album title feels like an understatement when dealing with the power of the weather. Immediately, “More Weight” introduces the album with piano keys that tell of malady, a decent way of settling audiences to the ride. “Tit to Toe” is where the veracity of Verellen’s vocals initiate, along with Hozoji Matheson-Margullis’ tribal-like drums. The track allows for the band to show a quality like Swans, not only through its vocals, but through its heavy instrumentation. This instrumentation can sway from rock (“Worth Your Wild”), metal (“Galloping Mind Fuk”), and punk, mostly through Dana James’ vocals. Placing itself as the third track of the record, however, limits the album’s effect, not immediately plunging listeners into the chaos.
“Meats and Milks” shows how able Helms Alee are in creating atmosphere. The song demonstrates tones that remind of murky waters through its slow guitar and smoky drums. Unfortunately the track shows how overproduction creates an artificiality in the band. The odd changes of pace within its solo do not help either. “Creeping You Company” also feels in the wrong place. When it transitions from the metal “Galloping Mind Fuk”, its vocals feel out of line with the rest of the album’s sound. It feels more poetic and post-hardcore, like a softer bit from a mewithoutyou record.
However, when the atmosphere of wrecked ships returns in “Andromenous”, things feel in their right place. With the same energy featured in “Untoxicated”, the band resume with their stride. With each hammer-on and pull-off, Helms Alee create the illusion of a place. Though their math rock riffs show virtuosic skill, it is their honed ability to combine strings, drums, and vocals into a dreaded mass that creates a consistent music landscape — the tragic seas.
While there are points where Stillicide can feel artificial, there is still the unifying sense of gray and earth-shattering sense of reality that carries the album. Verellen’s vocals might be hard to decipher, but he always creates a sense of visceral pain. The same can be said, at times, when James brings her brand of vocal chaos with a near-charismatic punk. It is the instrumentation, especially Matheson-Margullis’ versatile drumming, that brings the endearing elements of Stillicide. Helms Alee demonstrate that they do not need massive production to be loud. They only need to bring their pain when recording and they can craft whatever atmosphere they dream up.