LIVE: Helms Alee, East End, Portland, OR

By Gabriel Mathews

Dear minuscule readership,

I am no longer your Los Angeles correspondent, and while I’ll soon be your Seattle correspondent, I’m currently here in the weird limbo that most of you probably call home: Portland. Here’s to the Rose City, may it remain a have for the strange for decades to come.

Portland’s East End is a venue unlike any I’ve ever reported from in LA, in that it is actually pretty normal. A bar upstairs, a bar downstairs, a small stage in a small basement room. There are stage lights, but they are minimal. People drink reasonably­-priced beer. It’s pretty neat.

Portland punk institution Rabbits took the stage with grayer hair than I expected. I suppose I was aware that these guys had been around for a while (long enough for Sizzle Pie to have a salad named after them), but somehow that didn’t equate to their being old. But old they are. The music they churn out is some sort of low, basic growling punk sludge—I was surprised when I realized no one was playing a bass. Everyone involved was decent enough at what they do, but the whole picture somehow wasn’t all that compelling, and I mostly found myself wondering if these guys were married, and if so, what their wives thought of Rabbits.

Or husbands, as it may have been. Portland’s Gaytheist were another surprise, mainly for their frontman’s appearance. Jason Rivera is a portly, bespectacled man with gray in his beard, and for the show he was sporting a checkered button­up shirt with a newsboy cap to match, along with a pair of suspenders. He looked more like my rabbi on his day off than the frontman of a hot­shit, gay, atheist rock act. But that’s exactly what he is. Gaytheist seemed to actually be the primary draw that night, and their lightning­fast metal/punk songs with titles like “Wisdom of the Asshole” and “Elderly Assassin” (“This song is about an aging hitman who’s supposed to do one last hit, but then he falls in love with the guy he’s supposed to kill and takes him out for dinner.”) definitely earned the applause they received. Rivera was gregarious and sweet between songs, but furious and roaring while playing. Drummer Nick Parks never once stopped soloing, and was only the second most impressive drummer of the night. All in all, a great time.

Kowloon Walled City, up from San Francisco, were another story altogether. While their name and online aesthetic had me intrigued, as did a few seconds of a song or two, I pretty quickly lost interest with their incredibly slow, monotonous doom metal. There might have been some sort of melodic/harmonic interplay, but it was moving at such a snail’s pace that I had trouble noticing. Not only were all their songs slow, but they were all the same level of slow, and if any interesting meters were present, I couldn’t tell for the drummer’s caveman thudding. Since I’ve been judging all the bands this evening based on appearance, I have to also deduct points from KWC for having a bassist who looked like an overweight Joey Tribbiani in a too­small Murder City Devils t­shirt, and a drummer who wore an undersized duckbilled trucker cap backwards atop his big head. My CGC for the evening, who also happened to be my dad, and I spent a few minutes after their set debating whether this was intellectually-­motivated music, or if it was just incredibly dumb. CGC had a good point—if intellect isn’t the motivator for this kind of thing, what the fuck is?

Thank god, then, for Helms Alee, who are motivated not just by intellectual rigor, but by an inventive drive rarely seen in contemporary music. What they do could roughly be described as “experimental metal,” but it’s incorporation of boy/girl harmonies and relatively poppy song­ structures makes it accessible in a way I pretty much never find in metal. The Seattle band’s most recent album, Sleepwalking Sailors, is an early contender for my top five of the year.

Despite my enthusiasm for their music, I’ve never really done much research on Helms Alee. Somehow it seemed more interesting to imagine them as weirdo cave dwellers than people with day jobs and cats. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve always been most impressed by the drumming on Helms Alee’s records, even with frontman Ben Verellen’s unbelievable shredding for comparison. Imagine the thrill of seeing that this powerful, inventive drummer I’d been idolizing as some hulking Grecian god was in fact a totally badass 90­ pound woman named Hozoji Matheson-­Margullis, who not only destroys the skins for Helms, but also shreds like a madwoman fronting Lozen, and by day works as a commercial geoduck diver for the Puyallup tribe in Tacoma. Her approach to drumming is some strange combination of childlike ebullience and Zen­master precision. She spent half the set in a zoned out trance, the other half grinning maniacally. After one song the crowd especially loved, she said into her mic, “Thanks, motherfucks!”

Oh, yeah, she has a mic because while doing all this crazy drum shit, she’s also singing like a champ. Let’s not ignore that fact. So for all Verellen’s guitar heroics and general imposing size, and bassist Dana James’ gut­-busting fuzz, I couldn’t really ever take my eyes off Matheson-­Margullis. She’s this band’s absolutely­-not­-secret­-at-­all weapon, and she’s a powerhouse in the tradition of other great female Northwest drummers such as Sara Lund and Janet Weiss. (As a side note, I want to acknowledge that there shouldn’t really be a line drawn between great female drummers and great male drummers—a great musician is a great musician. That said, we have to acknowledge that rock, and especially rock drumming, has long been a boy’s club, and seeing a woman destroy so thoroughly is an exciting thing, whether it should be or not.)

Let’s not ignore Verellen, though. This guy, who is probably 6’6”, 225 lbs, (220 when he cuts his hair) has the convenient day job of building incredibly loud tube amps, and all the amplifiers on stage were branded with his last name. His guitar work is impressive, but I find myself even more fascinated by his singing, which flips between a high, clean tenor and a scream unlike any I’ve ever heard, a scream that sounds not like it’s coming from his throat, but rather from his lower intestine. And there is no middle ground—Verellen is either a reformed choirboy or a herniated giant, the contrast adding a fascinating element of tension to songs like “Pleasure Center” and “Pinniped”. Another standout was instrumental “Left Handy Man Handle,” which features a roiling bass line and a non-­stop, full-­kit roll from Matheson­-Margullis. General point being, if ever given the chance, check these guys out live, it’s a very fulfilling experience.

A concluding question for my limited readership— Do people at Portland punk shows mosh? I was startled to find that no one was really moving much at all, even for the frenetic Gaytheist set. This is something y’all should work on. Really.

[Editor’s note: you’re goddamn right Portland moshes.]

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