Helms Alee, Kowloon Walled City, The Narrows, Cower, Dec. 28 at the Shakedown

Quick: guess how many times Helms Alee has played in Bellingham in the past two years. Did you guess ‘A lot?’ Roughly, yes, that’s about right. These Pacific Northwest living legends have garnered a substantial following thanks to their awesome songs, infectious energy, and the tones and pedigree earned by guitarist Ben Verellen’s amplifier company. Confession time: I had missed them all those many times they had come through town before this show, though I really dig their recorded material. Also an attraction for me, Kowloon Walled City is an excellent drop-tuned sludgy band and I had recently imposed my acquaintance on their bassist through his baseball blog. Suffice to say I was stoked for this show.

I missed much of Cower’s set (who starts a show on time? Who does that?) but what I caught was consistent with what I already know of Cower. Awesome throw-backy head-banging metal with a good live show.

The Narrows were a bit of a speed-bump of artistic plodding after the high-energy openers, though. Not being as familiar with The Narrows, I was put off by the sequencing, but it may have meant a lot to their fans. They played well, but I got the sense that people were in a more engaging mood than the observational style of spectating. Kowloon Walled City came on and there was something immediately different from the rest of the night. These guys have a subtle professionalism and style, setting the mood for the impressive and powerful performance to follow. Using Helms Alee’s amps, they were crushingly heavy in their drop-tuned chugging. And they do like to chug-a-lug through winding rhythmic bursts of energy and roaring, ambitious aggression. They sounded the best of the night, as well, and easily the best-sounding band I’ve heard at the Shakedown. Their latest release is seriously excellent and should be considered for the marquee of this year’s ‘best of’ lists.

Helms Alee took the stage with a goofy, familiar energy to close out and finalize the night. Breaking into their set, their brand of explosive, loud rock and/or roll really got people moving, pushing me off the floor into the bar area. I could tell why people love them, but really couldn’t get into it myself. Maybe it was the overwhelming experience of KWC, but there wasn’t a receptor left in my brain for Helms Alee and I was left with that feeling when the end of a movie seems to have already come but then there’s more. KWC felt like a headliner, even to their obvious surprise. That’s probably the greatest takeaway from this show: KWC is much better than they might have thought, Helms Alee is awesome, professional, and has their following, The Narrows are a band for a mood, and Cower are solid role-players with potential to have a cult hit with widespread appeal like, for lack of more knowledge in the field, the Sword or Baroness. People like these bands, and it’s easy to see why, but I found it hard to like all of them in the same moment.