It feels weird, and faintly damning, to start a review with the phrase ‘more of the same’ but when that’s more of one of my favourite releases from last year then it’s not as bad as you might initially think. The Helm Of Sorrow consists of a handful of tracks harvested from the same crop as 2020’s May Our Chambers Be Full, an album which managed to blend the particularly melodic-yet-heavy vibe that pervaded 90s indie-rock music from the likes of Smashing Pumpkins or Alice in Chains with an abrasive, modern edge into something that, for me, had a near-timeless quality.
Given this it’s hard to think of The Helm Of Sorrow as a separate release rather than a ‘just one more thing’, cut from May Our Chambers Be Full probably more for the purposes of fitting it into the running time of a vinyl LP than any worries about quality. So, if you haven’t already, have a read of my review of that album. No, it’s fine. I can wait.
Done? Good! Let’s crack on.
The Helm Of Sorrow is filled with a mere four tracks so, unlike a longer album, I can look at them all in turn.
We open with the gloomy guitar and soaring vocals of Orphan Limbs, where violin notes swirl around Rundle’s voice as she offers ‘proposals of deformity / ugly and grotesque’. It’s a track that wouldn’t feel out of place alongside some of PJ Harvey’s more melancholy moments. At least until it drops into an oppressive rumble of distant drums and then bursts like a roaring wave into thick chords and Bryan Funck’s howl of a voice, punctuated by descending cascades of guitar melody. It’s a powerful opener that serves as a reminder of May Our Chambers Be Full as much as it does an introduction into the EP.
Orphan Limbs segues nicely into Crone Dance, with its similarly thick guitar wall backing interplay between Funck and Rundle’s distinct voices. It’s also more its own song, taking that alternative 90s feel but not reminding directly of any specific group. Perhaps perversely that makes it sound more generic, at least until the devastating mid-section that drops into an almost funeral doom abyss and the vocals slowly morph into a muttering, monotone chant as the whole thing collapses into soporific riffs and cavernous moans.
it’s a bold, brilliant decision and brings the entire alt-90s influence on this collaboration full circle…
Next up is Recurrence, starting with the reverb-laden solo guitar which has been a motif of this collaboration, but quickly moves to more sludgy guitars and pummelling drums. It appears, at least to my ears, to be the track that has the least overt influence from Rundle and, because of that, it’s by far the weakest of the four.
This only serves, though, to highlight the brilliance of closing track Hollwood. Whatever possessed this combined line-up to cover a track by The Cranberries is beyond me but – with its blend of anger and disappointment redolent in the repeated phrase ‘this is not Hollywood / like I understood’ – it’s a bold, brilliant decision and brings the entire alt-90s influence on this collaboration full circle. Emma Ruth Rundle invoking the furious spectre of Dolores O’Riordan as she howls out the line ‘run away / run away’ has no real business being as good as it is, but the fact of the matter is it’s wonderful and warrants the release of this EP all by itself.
The Helm Of Sorrow is a strange release to give a verdict on. I like it and if you liked May Our Chambers Be Full then you’ll probably like it as well. Probably like it a lot, in fact. Especially if you’re a similar age to me and can delight in the scattering of musical references from your own youth.
If, on the other hand, the very mention of The Cranberries has made you choke on your coffee then you might be best to skip on by.
Scribed by: Daniel Pietersen