Black Elk Grows Up, Helms Alee Branches Out

No, you shouldnÂ’t be surprised.

"We just don't want to get stuck in a rut where every album sounds the same, it's a waste of people's time," says Tom Glose, the gravel-gargling vocalist for Portland's Black Elk. "You might as well keep trying to challenge yourself, because when it gets boring, that's when it's not worth it anymore."Given the astonishing creative growth spurt between their eponymous 2006 debut and their recently released sophomore effort, Always a Six, Never a Nine (Crucial Blast), Glose doesn't need to worry about feeling bored anytime soon. Neither do punk and noise-rock fans who appreciate the punishing undertow of bass and drums or the unpredictable, blood-drawing guitars frequently associated with the early-'90s bands on Touch and Go or Amphetamine Reptile records.Indeed, Black Elk earns legitimate Jesus Lizard comparisons as frequently as Obama does to JFK, but, similarities in Glose's yowling aside, what makes the band ultimately so engrossing is their ability to shape-shift on a dime, moving from meat-and-potatoes hardcore grind to almost symphonic, surreal sprawl, sometimes in the space of one song."When we wrote the first album, we wrote the songs very fast—they were written right when we first started playing," explains Glose. "As a young band, we were all into this same type of music and said, 'Yeah, let's play this hard stuff.' But probably a few months after that came out, myself and [guitarist] Erik [Trammell] were saying we needed [to evolve]. I didn't want to scream all the time anymore. I come home after work and listen to The Cure; Erik listens to the Smiths all the time. We are not listening to heavy metal constantly; I think we have a lot more influences that we want to draw from. I think it's going in the right direction and I think it's going to keep on going in that direction."The beer-soaked crowd at the Comet last Friday reveled in the band's brutish beauty with the sort of enthusiasm that indicates a wildfire-paced broadening of fan base. Expect their next Seattle show to pack out even further.That same night at the Comet, locals Helms Alee delivered a magnificent headlining set that will undoubtedly go down as one of my favorite shows of the year. In fact, at this point I feel totally comfortable stating that the riveting trio of Ben Verellen, Dana James, and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis is hands-down the most inspired rock band operating in Seattle right now. Verellen, a UW student currently finishing his electrical engineering degree, has recently added small-business owner to his roster of accomplishments. A passion for the warmly dynamic sounds of tube amplifiers led him on a mission to learn how to build his own, though it wasn't an easy path to take. "I e-mailed every professor at UW and asked them if any of them would want to teach tube technology," recalls Verellen. "Almost every single one of them wrote back and said why would you want to learn that kind of stuff? Because it's ancient and tubes are pretty much obsolete."Undeterred, Verellen finally found a professor willing to teach him the basics, and he built his first amp two years ago (several local bands use his creations now, including his peers in Minus the Bear and Akimbo). "I just kind of got in there and did it and figured out where to get parts. There was a kid living next door to me who worked at an amp shop, and he kind of walked me through some of the construction stuff. And from there I just started fumbling my way through it." Once he connected with business partner Mike Erdman, the idea to form Verellen Amplifiers, LLC took shape. "I think that idea was there before I even figured out how to do it," he laughs. "I knew I didn't want to get a job after I graduated. I wanted to figure out some way to do something audio-related." The operation has recently moved out of his spare bedroom and into new digs on Aurora Avenue, right near Red Room Recordings, the studio co-owned by producer Matt Bayles and These Arms Are Snakes drummer Chris Common. It's an ambitious undertaking in the shadow of a tenuous economy, but Verellen's determined drive should serve him well. "I think it's about the power and control to be able to build your own amp and make it sound however you want. It's basically Nerd 101."

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