Helmet regroups and changes its sound with mixed results
In an era polarized by George H. Dubya's first oil war and an uprising of disenchanted grunglings, Helmet gave alternative rock a harsh dose of reality. Its 1990 debut, Strap It On, unleashed a massive and unwavering metal minimalism that resonated all the way from New York's downtown art-rock scene to the farthest reaches of suburbia. By the time Meantime followed a year later, the group had perfected a formula of antagonistic, post-punk melodies driven by drop D tunings the likes of which hadn't been heard since Black Sabbath's earliest riffs. Helmet faded into the background as the '90s drew to a close, but a generation of younger musicians adopted the group's simple yet heavy-as-hell approach, instigating a "nu-metal" assault on mainstream rock. The influence of its once groundbreaking growl was exploited to the point of parody by such commercial metal caricature acts as Korn, Godsmack and Limp Bizkit. But now founder/ vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton has revived Helmet for Size Matters, the group's sixth full-length album. The result is a dated and artistically questionable new record.
Helmet began as an experiment in droning dissonance. Holding a graduate degree in jazz studies from the Manhattan School of Music, the Portland-born, NYC transplant was a novice to punk and alternative rock. While looking for work after graduating, Hamilton responded to a want ad in the Village Voice, which landed him as third guitarist in the avant-garde rock outfit Band of Susans. The experimental group was a far cry from jazz. His appearance on Susan's second full-length, Love Agenda (Blast First), in '89 led him to play in a nine-guitar project headed up by avant-garde guitar luminary Glenn Branca. "All of the sudden, I was playing in a group with three guitars tuned to drones and it was all very cool and different," says Hamilton. "Then Branca came along with nine guitars all tuned to more drones. It inspired me to think that electric guitar is not dead. I left Band of Susans because I felt limited being the third of three guitar players, so I formed Helmet."
Rounding up a group of players consisting of drummer John Stanier, bassist Henry Bogdan and guitarist Peter Mengede, Strap It On emerged as a lo-fi, gritty and aggressive collection of songs bound by repetition. "I was taught that less is more, so instead of writing complex rock songs, I used the guitar as a sound generator rather than playing it like a typewriter," Hamilton continues. "I started re-creating the rhythms and sounds I was hearing when riding the subway, or walking home from work."
The group carried on for a couple of albums, but split up after releasing Aftertaste in 1997. Size Matters finds Hamilton heading up a whole new cast of players and creating a different, but not necessarily better, sound. Late-era Helmet guitarist Chris Traynor (Orange 9mm, Bush), drummer John Tempesta (White Zombie, Testament), and bassist Frank Bello (Anthrax) make up the new group. On the album, the group has some fine moments. The songs "See You Dead," "Enemies" and "Throwing Punches" are some of the group's most realized offerings. Yet they don't pack the punch Helmet songs once did. The searing simplicity and lo-fi din are replaced by slick production qualities.
But Hamilton stands behind the sound of the new album, attesting that it distinguishes Helmet from its flock of copycats. "Helmet's major contribution to modern rock is the vocabulary that less is more," Hamilton says. "A lot of what people have done with that vocabulary is not very good. There's no discipline and no patience behind what a lot of modern rock bands are doing. Because of that, people will say what they're going to say about Helmet, but I can't listen to them. I know that not every artist will make everyone happy every time, but I know this is my best record yet and that's all that matters."