Wednesday, 18 June 2008




For the longest time I staunchly defended Helmet, long after their alternative credibility had since dried out.  Then again this was never necessarily a band that was cool, they were just hard.

Helmet was always something of a social butterfly when it came to the alternative rock scene of the nineties.  They started out in New York rubbing shoulders with the Amphetamine Reptile acts (indeed the label put out their first album Strap It On).  Then when the majors came knocking with a huge cheque they found themselves lumped in with the grunge acts even though geography would expose otherwise.  I remember one particular MTV News segment where they covered and suggested the New York hardcore scene was about to take over from Seattle grunge including clips and soundbites from Biohazard and Pro Pain in addition to Helmet and Sonic Youth.  Yeah, as if any of those acts were ever going to break.  Indeed the cover art with its start red reminds of those blood splattered Unsane affairs.  Then after the sun set on the alternative nation and it had been rinsed dry by the majors and MTV, Helmet suddenly found themselves very much a Kerrang (as opposed to NME) band maintaining a staunch following and even slight credit/blame for pioneering the nu-metal sound.  Then there were (and still are) Page Hamilton’s digressions into jazz and the avant garde while John Stanier eventually ending up as the drummer for Battles brings a whole new element to their expansive playing existence.  In other words, Helmet was a band with depth.

Few albums open so thunderously as Meantime and the veritable sonic whirlwind that chews up proceedings and churns the stomach with “In The Meantime”.  This is the sound of band turning the ignition.  And when the dust audibly settles Helmet truly takes over.  It is worth noting that while the rest of the record was produced by the band, recorded by Wharton Tiers and mixed by Andy Wallace, this track was done by Steve Albini.  Let the Nirvana comparisons begin.

The record remains relentless.  Moving on the band truly masters the art of serving up slab upon slab of hard edged guttural guitar smarts.  Then every now and then Hamilton loosens the leash prompting the listener to drop their guard only to be yanked back into proceedings with even more ferocity.

“Give It” was always a stand out track for me, even before I discovered the Eric Bogosian pacing in his apartment having a meltdown video.  This was like heavy metal reggae to me with its slow pace and hard gesture.  And piercing through all this remains the wise words of Hamilton seemingly caked in empathy not least with the great mantra “self help self help confidence”.

“Your will to speak clearly exposed too much.”

To this day “Unsung” remains the most recognised Helmet song.  And it’s definitely a solid selection containing all the exciting elements that made the band a more worthy proposition than dissenting voices would allow as it surfs/sails the fine line between a heavy as hell hardcore metal onslaught and alternative strides exhibiting bruised gestures and fond declaration.  This song is everything that was good about Helmet.  It opens with a thumping pulse, Stanier’s unique snare sound and Hamilton screeching his guitar with feedback that sounds like an elephant’s roar.  Then as the song powers forward the jerking stop-start motion is resounding blunt as it all works to a soaring and stirring chorus.  It is quite the irony that a band derided by music snob ultimately be known for a song entitled “Unsung”.

And then the album gets heavy.

From here the pace steps up as the amplification appears to rise.  “Turned Out” is the most brutal track on offer in this album.  In a weird era of nineties neon gloss Hamilton focuses on well dressed individuals orbiting his environment as a magnificent breakdown eventually builds towards a focus attack on Downtown Julie Brown for some reason.  I guess Club MTV was just representative of everything they hate(d).  Again there is irony here considering that Helmet was often considering one of the most conservative looking metal bands on the scene.

Personally I will always have “You Borrowed” as it was the earworm playing in my head on the afternoon that I passed my driving exam (at the third attempt).  This track has one hell of a catchy riff, the kind of thing Beavis And Butthead worshipped at the time.  There is no discounting this song on any level especially when the force comes coupled with yet another prized vocal delivery from Hamilton in anthemic fashion (“trust the dying breed”) complete with call and response chorus.  It even has firebrand breakdown that builds into one of those trademark Helmet solos that remain on the right side of cheesy.  It smelts to the end.

“Every day’s the last day no one sees you.”

With songs entitled “He Feels Bad” and “Better” sat side by side it is with a heavy heart that much of this music is delivered.  For me there remains a definite white man blues vibe and certainly in the low and lazy manner in which the rhythm maintains I still feel a reggae come the latter half of the record as more rough optimism shines through.  There is an education here to be had if the listener decides to invest.

Following “FBLA” on Strap It On, the penultimate track arrives in the sequel “FBLA II”.  This is really quite removed from the precursor offering more lumps and another exploration into modern existence using heavy tools and artillery.  As the band hovers at the mid point gearing up for one final assault you have never felt in safer hands.

Without missing a beat “Role Model” closes the album packing up proceeding in appropriate fashion opening with the line “assume my stance” and further address to audience to not fuck up and get things wrong.

This record remains amazing.  Nobody made being ordinary sound so magnificent.

Thesaurus moment: concrete.

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