That's the happy predicament Seattle trio Helms Alee found themselves in following 2008's Night Terror. You might think subsequent releases would be curveballs, but ask singer-guitarist Ben Verellen what's especially different about Stillicide, the band's fourth full-length, and you'll likely get a moderate "Not much." He wouldn't be wrong, and yet you'd still be asking him about one of the best rock albums of the year.
Stillicide is cut from the same cloth as previous Helms Alee material, but the songwriting is improved enough to keep even long-time listeners on their toes. Verellen provides crunchy chords, searing melodies and the occasional psyched-out clean passage here, and on "Untoxicated," he delivers his most blissfully indulgent guitar performance to date. For a player whose greatest strength is a less-is-more approach, it's perfectly placed.
Bassist Dana James negotiates the simultaneous groove and menace that define her style with the utmost tact; her shining moment is the bit of sugar she throws into the otherwise acerbic pot that is "Galloping Mind Fuk." "Andromenous" deserves special mention for having the nastiest two-note bass line in rock's recent history.
The backbone of the operation remains Hozoji Matheson-Margullis' drumming, which is equally impressive when it problematizes a 4/4 groove as it is when it smoothes out the kinks in a winding passage. A couple of simple snare hits in the opening section of "Bullygoat" serve as the best example of Matheson-Margullis' ability to inject a plodding verse with some much-needed tautness.
If you need to pin something on Stillicide, it'd be that the band is occasionally guilty of not fully flexing their own songwriting muscle. That blistering solo at the end of "Untoxicated" trails off into a quick couple of fills that end the track in an unsatisfyingly erratic way, for example; perhaps a return to the song's anchoring riff, however brief, would have provided a better sense of closure. "Tit to Toe" suffers from a similar fate. Its jangly swagger builds to a triumphant finish thanks to a three-headed vocal part, but the celebration doesn't last quite long enough for it to feel like a proper pay off. The band excel at grabbing listeners by the neck, but there are a few moments here when they let go earlier than you'd like.
That's a small concern, though. Stillicide is killer. (Sargent House)