You wake to the sound of water and distant drums. Everything is out of focus. You're coming to. It's the sound water makes dripping into more water. The drums are far off.
Looking around, you realize you're in a cave. Stalagmites and stalactites rise and hang. You scan the cavernous expanse of blue-green pools, wondering where the thundering drums are coming from. Every sound echoes. You spy a ladder leading up into a fissure and begin to climb. The drums are coming from somewhere above you. Now bass and spiraling guitar can be heard; earth-fashioned music is throbbing inside this rock-faced womb.
A hundred feet up, you arrive in a torchlit chamber. Helms Alee are playing their mammoth songs before 200 people. The people are tall, gaunt, and pale with long hands and abnormally round eyes. They're members of a hidden society called the Oculus Terrai, who dwell inside a mountain in the Cascades. They sway in a trance to Helms Alee's supernatural hardcore, feeding on the vibration, worshiping it. The Oculus Terrai are a primitive, matriarchal people. No one knows about them. Their days are spent grinding corn, making bread, meditating, and painting cave walls. During the full moon, they leave their warren of caves to harvest and hunt. Helms Alee are their three-piece God.
Helms Alee drummer/vocalist Hozoji Matheson-Margullis, bassist/vocalist Dana James, and guitar player/amp maker/vocalist Ben Verellen have just released their second full-length album on Hydra Head Records, called Weatherhead. The sound juts from mystic metal to shoegazed punk to thick-throttled psychic stoner rock to weirded folk. Weatherhead is fastened with dark, sectioned, cyclical guitar-carved anthems. In places, songs are open, distant with reverb, and slow—then they turn a corner and thrash over oddly metered drill-bit beats.
Verellen possesses X-Acto-knife riffage and meaty, tortured screaming. James goes more ethereal, singing like a swan, sometimes harmonizing with Hoz. The song "Mad Mouth" rows out with solemn, reverbed guitar picking and Hoz's calculus-shield of drums. It's Pink Floyd on top of Trans Am. There's a pause, and then Verellen's riffage enters, smelting iron into steel, and he's screaming like his fingers are being ripped off one by one.
Ben Verellen and I spoke. We were not near the Cascade Mountains.
Do Helms Alee know that there are hidden people living inside a mountain who worship your music?
Yes, we know of them. They're called... alcoholics.
You all take your sounds to extremes. The loud, distorted sections are complete wrecking-ball rock. And the more tranquil sections are just the opposite. Like swans gliding on a psychic lake. The band does both so well. How are you able to dial up both modes so completely?
That's rad of you to say. I don't know, we use some effects pedals on the guitar and bass side, which helps us switch gears abruptly. Also, Hoz is a really dynamic drummer. I think we just get bored if things stay the same for too long.
Do you all practice a ton?
We're sorta spread around Tacoma and Seattle, so we usually get together to play once or twice a week.
What are your practices like?
Twenty percent playing music and 80 percent chitchat. There always seems to be lots of catching up to do when we get together.
Do Dana and Hoz ever get sick of people saying, "Wow, y'all sure can rock for being girls"? Or, "Rock and metal are such male-dominated realms. What's it like being women in rock?"
Oh yeah. So many funny situations where some dude will try to give some backhanded compliment about girls and music skills. The girls seem to be over it.
So what's it really like for them, being women in rock?
I think Dana and Hoz both try to make it as much of a nonissue as possible. I know I forget that it's a thing all the time.
Do they find that they have power over men because of their ability to rock? Do you find that men are especially entranced by their rock prowess?
Dudes do seem to trip over them. I've seen some pretty Wayne's World–style "I love you, man" moments at shows between men and D and Hoz. They can handle themselves pretty well.
I was watching video of Hoz drumming in slow motion. She is a valiant warrior. I imagined she was throwing axes and swords in battle. She threw an ax at an evil serpent monster and killed the fuck out of it. And she rode a large prehistoric tiger. And then she became injured by an Orc, and I saved her. Then we rode off and conquered Arabia. Do other guys imagine her killing serpent monsters and conquering Arabia and all that?
I can't imagine Hoz needing saving.
How do Helms Alee write material?
We come up with songs collectively at practice. Someone will trip over a riff or a beat, and songs evolve from that. Sometimes it happens in an hour, sometimes it takes a couple years to finish.
Where did you record Weatherhead? Who produced? What's the first thing that comes to mind when you recall the recording for this album?
We recorded with Matt Bayles at Litho and Red Room here in Seattle. The recording was pretty fast paced, and Matt recorded it to tape. There wasn't a lot of time to nitpick, which probably helped us not to get too in our heads about it.
What was the trickiest part about making the album?
When we started to look at all of the songs and imagine them together on a record, we were kind of tripped out on how different they were from each other. It seemed like the whole thing might be too disjointed or something, but there wasn't much we could do about it, so we just let it be.
Why did you name the song "Epic Adventure Through the Wood (Sucker Punch)"? There's gotta be a story there.
I have no memory of where the first part of that title came from, but the "sucker punch" part was Hoz describing a change in the song. Pretty interesting, right?
Please talk about your sledgehammer guitar riffage. It dominates all mankind. What do you think about when you are playing your guitar like that? Do you think about dominating all mankind while you are dominating all mankind?
Is there any way to answer that without sounding like a turd? I'll say... thank you? Distortion pedals can help make riffs... more. I guess I rely on that a bunch.
Please geek out for a second about gear. You make your own Verellen amps. What do you do to them to make them sound so solid? Does it have something to do with the mountain people?
The amps are made by hand with real simple old-world circuitry. Tubes and transformers. We knew what we needed them to do, so we customized them to do exactly that. It's helpful to have a say in what the amps sound like. Verellen Amplifiers (www.verellenamplifiers.com) is me and Mike Erdman, Hoz's other half. The amps we use are designed to be real loud and to take pedals well.
Who are your favorite guitar players?
Reine Fiske from Dungen is probably my favorite guitar player. He's amazing because he's constantly playing his guitar controls, amp controls, fuzz pedals, tape echo, etc., between parts within a song. Super-creative guitar player.
What's special to you about Helms Alee? Besides the Oculus Terrai worshiping you.
What's special to me about Helms Alee is how we make it about friendship first and music is kind of secondary. I think that helps keep unnecessary stress out of it.
Dana is into horticulture, and you make amps. What does Hoz do?
Yes, Dana is closing in on a degree in horticulture and landscape design. I stay busy with Verellen Amplifiers. Hoz does scuba diving and works as a commercial geoduck diver.
I wish I'd known Hoz is a commercial geoduck diver when I was watching the slow-motion videos. What does Helms Alee do for summer fun?
This August we get to play Total Fest in Missoula. Three days of bands, backyard barbecues, river floating, and other summer high jinks. I recommend that event to any fan of underground rock. It's as fun as summer gets.
How do you describe Helms Alee to people?
A weird rock band with lots of screaming and some singing.