My Musical Adventures

Metal to My Ears w/ Isis, Helms Alee @ GAMH, 6/23/09


I’m driving through the Tenderloin, dodging crazy people who wander into the streets, looking for parking. I have two spots stolen from me, and am heckled on the street as I walk to the venue. But stepping into the Great American Music Hall makes it all go away (as does the bartender’s extremely stiff drink).

I’ve missed the first band, but Helms Alee is setting up as I take my spot at the right corner of the stage. This three piece from Seattle consists of a male guitarist/vocalist, a female bassist/vocalist, and a female drummer. I look around and notice that this crowd is particularly male dominant- and I wonder how well this will go over. The girls are chatting on stage before they start- the bassist comments about how the straps to her shirt keep falling off her shoulder. Hmmm….The band begins playing, their dreamy metal somehow not filling up the venue. The pieces just don’t all fit together- the vocals in particular really bother me. The crowd is being polite…except for this one guy. He keeps yelling, in an English accent I think, “come on now!”, as if that is going to make them perform better. Now, I may not like what I am hearing, but you never, ever do that. The band did a good job of ignoring it. At one point the drummer poured water over her head- just a tiny bit, like a metal baptism. I kept thinking about how it is cool that this fairly beefy guy is in a metal band with two girls, and how I wish I liked it better. Oh well.


I will share a very personal story that will explain why I’ve never seen Isis before, and only recently started listening to them. I had a cat named Isis when I was in my early 20’s. I was also dating and living with this psychotic asshole. He used to hurt my cat when he got mad at me. One day, my cat mysteriously fell ill and I had to put her down at barely over a year old. I have my suspicions. So, I just had a really hard time having any connection to a band I knew I would like simply because I couldn’t bare to be around that name.

Moving on….Isis takes the stage a little after 10pm. They mention that the set is dedicated to their tour manager, who is going through a tough time. As they launch into their first song, I am taken aback by how clean and perfect the sound is. When I go to see a band like this- technical, melodic metal- I always worry a bit that it will sound as good live. Especially in comparison to the previous band, and even in light of my never ideal side of stage and close to a speaker location, their sound is immaculate.


The five piece look as I would expect a technical metal band to look like. Most of them are unassuming, in t-shirts; the lead singer, bearded and looks in need of a meal; and the man behind the electronics, playing the occasional guitar, a young Dio dressed in an Egyptian-esque tunic- the only semblance of a ‘costume’ in the band.

The floor erupts next to me as the boys start slamming into each other. The band is able to gracefully transition from what is almost like metal elevator music in the best possible sense, to very heavy stuff complete with growled vocals. That heckler tries to start his shit again, but somebody shut him up. Most of us are swaying in our spots, geeking out watching these guys geek out on stage.

During the second song- ’20 Minutes/40 Years’, one of their heavier songs (and also one of my favorites)- some shirtless guy jumps onstage and looks like he is about to cause trouble. There probably should have been a barrier for this show. He ends up jumping back into the crowd on his own accord.

Aaron Turner can easily maneuver screaming to singing to the point that I thought there might be two people sharing vocal duties. When he sings, he has a velvet voice that sounds oddly similar to the vocalist for 311. It’s pretty impressive. When he plays the guitar, he gets very close to those in the front row, banging his head close to the tops of theirs, as if showing mutual adoration through their metal body language.

If anyone ever doubted that metal can be beautiful, they’ve never heard this band. While comparisons to Mastodon and Tool are abundant, Isis manages to avert any menacing edge, without losing their heaviness. It’s a delicate balance to provide a soundtrack for a positive trip- I was lost in the music, and never drifted into a bad headspace once.

There was a guy in the crowd who kept doing an ear piercing whistle between songs. It was really irritating. He would do it, and then look at his female companion and chuckle. I don’t understand this behavior- is this a football game? No.

I couldn’t help but notice some cute stuffed animal perched on a speaker- a very fat cat or something. It was oddly out of place, but actually made me smile when I noticed it.

They played for about an hour and a half, coming back out to perform ‘Celestial’, my other favorite, for an encore (and thanking the staff of GAMH- these guys seem very nice and polite). Because their songs are all quite long, the set felt short, and I think many of us left wanting more. This is never a bad thing.

Afterward I picked up this beautiful poster to add to my collection.


Isis performance: 9.25/10
Helms Alee performance: 5/10
venue (GAMH): 9.5/10
crowd/scene: 7.5/10
value ($16.00/ticket): 9.5/10
memorable: 8.5/10


    Saw them in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. They were excellent.

    An excellent report of an excellent night.

    Interesting… My friends and I thought Helms Alee killed it!

    Thanks for the writeup.

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