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Originally published Friday, December 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

Metal band Helms Alee sees imperfection as a good thing

Rising Seattle metal band Helms Alee has a new release, "Night Terror" (Hydra Head), and a gig at the Comet Tavern on Dec. 5.

Special to The Seattle Times

On the Internet

Helms Alee: www.myspace.com/helmsaleemusic

It should come as no surprise that Seattle harbors a dark underbelly to the pastoral pop and good-times Americana that has drawn so much attention to the local scene this year. As a city we might be dysfunctional, but we're not imbalanced.

So while the sun shines on Grand Archives, Fleet Foxes and the Moondoggies, bands like Earth (profiled in Nightlife back in September), Mamiffer and Portland's Grails lurk in the shadows, churning out the kind of heavy-duty, gut-churning rock that satisfies a hunger for something more sinister. One of the most punishing of their ilk is Helms Alee, a local trio that celebrates their Hydra Head Records debut "Night Terror" at the Comet tonight. The common thread that binds all of these bands is Mother Nature: Whether acoustic or electric, light or heavy, pretty or dark, they each make music that evokes the sublime landscape of the Pacific Northwest.

"Traveling a little bit, I think we're totally lucky," says Helms Alee guitarist/singer Ben Verellen via cell before heading to electromagnetics class at the University of Washington. "This is one of the craziest places to put a city. You have all this water around and mountains and everything. We're totally spoiled."

From the start, "Night Terrors" surges like an avalanche, piling crescendo atop crescendo, sculpting monuments out of volume. All three bandmembers — Verellen, bassist/singer Dana James and drummer/singer Hozoji Matheson-Margullis — contribute vocals, sometimes simultaneously, alternately cooing and howling like a more ominous iteration of mid-'90s alt-rockers like Jane's Addiction or the Pixies. Male/female vocal counterpoint dramatizes lyrics that seem intended more for meter than meaning. Throughout, the emphasis is melodic contrast: the battle of riffs-vs.-drones provides texture so skuzzy and rugged it's nearly palpable.

"One of the things that's been irking me lately about music is all these perfect-sounding records," Verellen says. "I think digital trickery has bled a little bit of the life out of rock, which is supposed to be kind of raw."

The 28-year-old Verellen is two weeks away from completing a B.S. in electrical engineering ("I'm on the eight-year plan to a bachelor's degree," he says) and recently started a business building and selling guitar amplifiers. Members of Akimbo, Maktub and Minus the Bear use his handmade gear. This proclivity for the nuts and bolts of rock is all over "Night Terror."

"When we were making the record, we wanted to make it sound like a band playing together in a room as opposed to piecing it together, meticulously overanalyzing every note and every transition," he says. "It came out sounding imperfect, which is in my opinion a good thing."

The fact that such a raging torrent of sound comes from only three musicians, sans overdubs and multiple tracks, bolsters that sense of compelling imperfection. And while the 10 songs on "Night Terror" are mostly concise, three-to-four-minute episodes, there are no breaks between them, yielding a contiguous 35-minute epic that begs complete listening.

"I really like the idea of a record that's a cohesive piece of music," Verellen says. "You can listen to the songs on their own, but it's cool to just put on the headphones and listen to a record start to finish and just get into it."

There are two other Helms Alee records on small local imprints, but this release on Hydra Head (an esteemed label closely identified with the new generation of heavy music for smart people) is the 2-year-old band's proper coming out — not to mention one of the strongest debuts of the year. It's also a noisy, nasty yang to Seattle's beardy, folky yin. Pastoral metal is a necessary thing.

Helms Alee play the Comet at 9 tonight; $7.

More must-see shows this week:

Sunday

Fresh outta Spin magazine's November "Buzzcatcher" section, Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band brings their off-kilter indie rock to Neumo's (all ages; 7 p.m. Sunday; $10).

Wednesday

It's hard to peg Tuatara as a supergroup because most people have never heard of them. But check the lineup: Peter Buck of REM, Barrett Martin of the Screaming Trees, Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5, Justin Harwood of Luna and all-around saxmaster Skerik. Pretty super. They play their first Seattle gig in seven years at Neumo's as a benefit for Amnesty International (8 p.m. Wednesday; $15).

Thursday

• Since this week's column is about pastoral metal, here's a hearty plug for riff-rocking Virginia power trio Pontiak (the Comet, 9 p.m. Thursday, $7).

The Cave Singers emerge from their subterranean lair for their first show in the city for a while at Neumo's. They're joined by avant-punk trio Past Lives, former members of the Blood Brothers, for a brilliant mixed bill (8 p.m. Thursday, $12).

Jonathan Zwickel: zwickelicious@gmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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