Over the course of their decade-plus existence, New Jersey’s Helcaraxë has tooled around with their death metal formula here and there, but the one thing that has stayed constant is the bombast. Plain and simple, these boys like to pummel. Embryonic works lead to the Unleashed-with-personality furor of 2009’s Broadsword, delivering a ton of thunder but really only hinting at that which the band was truly capable.
Full potential was realized with 2012’s Red Dragon, an absolute monster of an epic, melodic death metal album, and the work that got this writer’s attention. By combining the heft and scope of Edge of Sanity’s classic Crimson with a lot of mid-90s Gothenburg melody, the band was more than able to make The Hobbit more than a little brutal. But more than that, it showed a completeness of vision that far too much death metal of the melodic variety is missing, with each new spin yielding yet another infectious detail.
But rambling on with an intro is of no necessity. Guitarist Bill Henderson was kind enough to answer some of our queries, and he went at length to provide as much information as possible about this great, under-the-radar band. Read on, and discover what exactly fuels Smaug’s furnace.
Red Dragon added a ton of melody and a massively epic scope to the bombastic death metal you established on early albums, but saying that Helcaraxë is a “melodeath” band in the traditional sense would not exactly be accurate. As a group, how would you describe yourselves, and where have you gathered the majority of your influence and inspiration?
Our influence has shifted quite a bit with every release, in large part because we started as a two-piece and began progressively adding band members through the years. The first album was just Jesse [Traynor] on vocals and me playing all the instruments. It was really my first foray into metal songwriting, and I’d come from a hardcore and punk background, in terms of the other bands I’d written for at that time. So you hear a lot of short fast songs with big, heavy breakdowns on Triumph and Revenge. And honestly, much of the guitar work was improvisational on that album. It was written and recorded in under two weeks, and some of the riffs you hear on there are literally the first time I played them, as I was improvising them. I feel like that’s kind of a weird record, and that’s largely why.
Pat [Henry] joined on bass for the EP [2008’s No God to Save You] and then Jon [Tarella] on Broadsword, but those were still mostly songs I’d written when the band was a two-piece. It wasn’t until Mike [Donatelli] joined as our drummer and we recorded the split LP with Father Befouled that we started writing as a full band. I think that’s when we really found our sound. Pat, Jon, and I all have pretty distinct styles for the kind of riffs we like to write, and our stuff works best when we can blend all of that.
To use Red Dragon as an example: you’ve got a lot of those massive, head-nodding riffs that Pat is so great at creating (like “Orcrist” or “Skin Changer”), the frantic and thrashy stuff with crazy pulloff leads from Jon (the main riff in “The Old Forest Road”), and the neo-classical or video-gamey stuff from me (like a lot of the title track).
With everyone contributing pieces to the songwriting, I still tend to handle the overall arrangement in the end, which probably leads to the sprawling nerdiness of our albums on the whole. I obviously listen to a lot of proggy stuff – Queen, Opeth, Blind Guardian. That’s had a big influence on the kind of big-picture albums I like to do these days.
With all of your material available for streaming or very affordable purchase on Bandcamp, you are obviously quite entrenched in the “new model” of how to spread your music. What brought you to this approach, and how has it worked out thus far? Also, has your time spent on Bandcamp lead to any great musical discoveries or new relationships?
We never had any designs on profiting from the band in any way and figured that if we could break even, or at least not lose much money on it, then it would be an enjoyably sustainable project. So we’ve tried to offer our CDs for $6.66 for the entire lifetime of the band, and priced our downloads accordingly. It also helps that I run a studio out of my house, so we have no recording costs involved in creating these albums.
We’ve been lucky enough to have a pretty loyal fanbase to this point who consistently support our releases. It allows us to indulge our desires to commission awesome cover artwork for our albums without incurring a tremendous amount of debt.
Despite being quite on board with how bandcamp has worked for Helcaraxë, I can’t say I’ve explored it much in the search for new music. In fact, I find that I don’t do much active seeking of new bands right now – as a mastering engineer, I’m working on and listening to 300-some albums every year from my clients, so after a certain point it tends to satiate (or maybe ruin?) my need to look for new bands. I still keep up with my favorite bands on Facebook and wherever else and will be excited if a new Katatonia album gets announced or something.
Every member of Helcaraxë has been or is currently in a number of other bands. How do you juggle all of these responsibilities and stay focused? Furthermore, after so many years doing this here metal thing, how do you make sure that you’re still having fun?
It can be tough to get everyone together at times. We’ve definitely gone on some extended stretches of inactivity with Helcaraxë for a variety of reasons – other bands, children being born, work, health. One thing that helps is the fact that Jesse and I found some very talented musicians to join us, so we can be fairly lazy and skip band practice for weeks… or months… and not suffer too much from it.
But it’s been fairly easy to keep it fun because it’s always been a low-pressure and no-expectations kind of band. If we don’t have time, we don’t stress about it. When we do, we try to make the most of it.
And to be honest, most of our other bands get neglected far more than Helcaraxë does – there’s plenty of neglect to go around, so we just have to find the right proportions in which to divide it. I don’t think my prog rock band has practiced in ten months, but when you’re a little older it’s easier to be OK with that and just assume the band still exists and will practice again some day!
Staying on the theme of fun… Resurrection through Cartridge. Explain.
Every few years I will go through a phase where I become obsessed with replaying and beating the original NES Legend of Zelda and a few of the old Mega Man games. The last time that happened I started thinking about how much the 8-bit soundtracks to those games had influenced the kind of music that I like to create, whether consciously or subconsciously, over the years. You get so used to those songs, hearing them thousands of times on a loop while you play – so it’s easy to think of them as simple tunes, due to the familiarity and the obvious limitations of the 8-bit medium. But any time I would really think about those songs or try to deconstruct one and learn them as guitar riffs, it would reinforce to me that they were really brilliant and intricate melody-driven compositions.
And I mean, you hear a lot of bands that take those classic NES songs and put a full band spin on them, like The Advantage, Minibosses, Powerglove, and so forth. But I hadn’t heard a ton of examples going in the opposite direction, taking some big metal song and stripping it down to an 80’s console sound. Anyway, that line of thinking naturally led me to the idea of seeing how our compositions would fare with an 8-bit treatment.
I started with “Chain Mail” as a proof of concept and feel like I got better at it as I went on. It was a fun songwriting experience, because I had to rework a lot my own stuff – chords don’t really translate to 8-bit, so there’s a lot of breaking things down to arpeggios and forcing melodies to become somewhat more rhythmic. I’m happy with how the songs turned out – they served as kind of a Helcaraxë-gateway for some of my friends who aren’t into death metal.
And I must credit our friend and layout designer, Josh, with the Bloodbath-parody album title. I was kicking around a couple of other ideas – the only one I remember is “Shadows in the Beep” – and he suggested Resurrection through Cartridge and I just lost it.
Where exactly does Helcaraxë go from here? Perhaps an album each for the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings? Maybe a conceptual album detailing the Flight of the Noldor, including their passage over that same grinding ice from which you gained your name? Or, now stay with me… a seven song EP, where each song details one of the wounds that Fingolfin dealt to Morgoth before the gates of Angband? Again, these are just suggestions…
While your suggestions are impressive and appropriately nerdy, I must admit that we have no further Tolkien song plans on the table at this point. We do actually have two new recordings in progress though. We’re wrapping up three new short songs for a probable split 7”, and those are all thematically pretty Odin-heavy.
But back in the realm of epic concept albums, we’re recording a new full length inspired by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. There were a couple tracks on Children of Ygg that drew from those books (“The Return” and “The Fade”), and we’re continuing that and actually pulling a couple small musical and lyrical references from those songs into the album as well. This record will follow in the direction of Red Dragon, in that you’ll hear plenty of recurring motifs throughout the album and it should feel thematically like one very large composition. But I think, from an arrangement perspective, I am doing a better job on this one of making each song stand on its own as a powerful piece. I really was quite pleased with Red Dragon, and still enjoy listening to it – but if I have one complaint about it, it would be that some of the tracks feel weak or incomplete without the context of the rest of the album around them.
The other thing I should mention about the new full length is that we’re dabbling in adding some supporting orchestral elements to it. I noticed a recurring theme of album reviewers comparing our records to epic film scores – so it seemed like an appropriate extension of that aspect of our songwriting, and a new way to challenge myself in composing for new instruments. Mostly some cellos and violins and flutes supporting some of the guitar melodies, little accents like that – not like we’re suddenly becoming Rhapsody of Fire or Septic Flesh, or something.
Anyway, we write quickly, but do everything else quite slowly – so it’ll be a while before any of these things see the light of day. But they’re in the pipeline and you’ll hear them sooner or later!