It can be tough to stand out in metal when every band seems to be on a mission to be the heaviest, the fastest and most technical in their playing field, so when we find a band who just want to play the nastiest music possible for their own twisted desires, we pay attention. And Plymouth trio Helpless are just that band, whose debut full-length ‘Debt’ is a nihilistic hybrid of grindcore, sludge and doom that treads the line between adrenaline and fear.
Naturally, we had to find out more about the creators of this visceral work of darkness, so we sat down with drummer Russell “Rusty” Cleave to ask about the band’s origins, musical principles and lyrical inspirations. “Dan [Couch, guitar/vocals] and Steve [Waldron, bass] were in a grindcore band called Godsick based in Plymouth, and I just knew Dan from being around him, playing in local bands,” Rusty says, explaining how the three-piece came to be.
“Because I played guitar in another band [the hugely overlooked Brotherhood of the Lake], he contacted me asking if I knew any drummers. Now because I’m also a drummer I said ‘I’d love to have a go, but I don’t just wanna play grindcore, I’d like to try something more interesting than just blasts,’” Rusty elaborates. “So, I went and had a practice with them and it worked perfectly. Then they ditched the old band name they had, and all the songs they’d written up to that point and we started fresh.”
With this fresh start, they began to develop a sound which promised to be more interesting than ‘just blasts.’ “We’re all into stuff like Converge and Gaza and The Secret, so we wanted to have some slower and more atmospheric parts bits, so it’s not just fast playing all the way,” Rusty explains.
“It’s nice to have some atmospheric intros and outros because it just makes it more interesting. If it’s just full on then it stops and you listen to too much of that kind of music, it all merges into one then every album you listen to becomes kind of similar, so you become desensitised to it. Then there’s no impact anymore because you’re just used to it.”
However ‘Debt’ is an album that listeners would struggle to get used to, which fits Helpless’ motive as songwriters perfectly. Dan Couch’s use of discordant notes can be heard throughout this album, from the main rhythm of ‘Worth’ through to the dirgey ‘Denied Sale’, the guitar work abandons any discernable melody in favour of thick walls of abrasion. “There are a lot of conversations where we’ll say ‘that part doesn’t sound horrible enough,’” Rusty explains. “If there’s a bit in a song that drops out, we’ll find ourselves saying ‘now that we’ve written that bit, the bit before needs to have something more’, so there’s a lot of changing and tweaking.”
“Dan’s got that [‘horrible’ vibe] on lockdown really, he’s quite a minor guitar player in that sense. If anything sounds too major or straight up, he will stick some note in there that doesn’t work, but does work if you know what I mean. If the riff is heavy enough but sounds too basic, we’ll add some discordant chord to make it darker or nastier.”
Beyond drumming, Rusty’s role in Helpless expands into more creative elements, namely his directing of all the bands’ music videos. The slickly-shot video for lead single ‘Ceremony of Innocence’ allowed him to present a visual representation of the song’s bleak mystique. “The lyrics are loosely based on this dystopian sci-fi 1984 kind of feel, where the Government are in control, don’t even bother trying to fight it, it’s happening, just go with it. Without being too corny, it’s kind of a helpless situation,” Rusty explains. “Dan reads a lot of that dystopian literature, so he writes about a lot of it. It’s perfect really, it’s like we’re writing a soundtrack to those images, that grimy picture is what we’re trying to get across.”
“We thought to have this Cold War spy, and he’s going to have this little bit of information on a disk or a computer ship and he’s going to give it to someone somewhere, but you don’t know who it is or what they’re going to do with the information,” Rusty explains. “I just thought to leave it completely open ended. Is he working for the Government or is he trying to help the people outside, or trap them?”
Ultimately for Rusty, being able to play drums in a creative band again is the most rewarding part about playing in Helpless. “I had a great time in Brotherhood of the Lake, where I played guitar, and that went on for ten years,” he explains. “That was cool, and in that time I got a lot of the basic songwriting stuff out of my system, but after that I thought ‘it would be great to play drums’, since I hadn’t played for years in a band, so I really wanted to give it a go.”
“It’s also been nice to not have the pressure of writing the material for guitar, which has made being in this band a lot more fun, which is weird for a band that sounds like we do, but it is.”
‘Debt’ by Helpless is released on 8th September on Holy Roar Records.
Words by Andy Davidson (@AndyrfDavidson)