The Stories Behind Every Helmet Album
New York veterans Helmet were one of the most unique and important alternative metal bands of the ‘90s, and they continue to be relevant and influential 30 years after their formation. Emerging from the back end of the NY noise rock scene of the late ’80s, from the outset the quartet married a distinctive blend of chunky riffing with squalls of guitar abuse that often sound like attempts to play notes that don’t actually exist, creating a signature sound that was compelling and unpredictable. Arriving at the apex of the hair metal explosion and the birth of grunge, they stood out by looking like clean cut dudes in jeans and t-shirts and sporting short haircuts, distinctly lacking anything resembling an image.
Releasing a string of albums in the ’90s, they never made the kind of dent on the charts that really got them noticed, and they would go on to split in ’98 only for band leader Page Hamilton to bring back the name with a new lineup in 2003. What better time to look back through their enviable catalogue, then? Dive in…
Strap It On (1990)
Signed to Amphetamine Reptile, home to some of the gnarliest noise to crawl out of the ’80s, Helmet’s debut is an ugly beast indeed. Built on syncopated rhythms, thick bass lines, stop-start riffing and showing a deep affinity for feedback and the more hideous sounds wrought from guitars each track definitely leaves bruises. Produced by Wharton Tiers (Sonic Youth, Unsane) it manages to be both raw and crystal clear, emphasising all the hardest edges - and there are a lot of these - while allowing the inherent catchiness of the tracks to shine through. Best here is easily the peerless Sinatra, which is not only the most insidious song of their career, but one of the best examples of unsettling music you’re likely to encounter.
Snapped up by Interscope in the major label rush to sign anything that just might be the next Nirvana, Helmet’s arrival in the big leagues came in far more metallic style. Boasting one of the all-time best opening tracks in the form of the Steve Albini-produced In The Meantime, which explodes from the speakers like few other songs, the album is all muscle, refining the sound of its predecessor and looking to pick a fight. Though it was no Nevermind it would go on to be their only album certified Gold, and stands as a benchmark release in their career. The video for Unsung also famously got the Beavis & Butthead treatment, the duo commenting on their regular guy appearance and that should they see them on the street they “wouldn’t even know they were cool.”
Arguably their finest release, Betty is also Helmet’s most diverse. Having worked with hip-hop producer T-Ray on their collaboration with House Of Pain for the Judgment Night soundtrack the previous year, the quartet - with guitarist Rob Echeverria replacing original six-stringer Peter Mengede - decided to do a whole album with him. Alongside cuts that further advanced their core sound such as Wilma’s Rainbow, Tic and standout Milquetoast, the album includes the playful, swaggering quasi-funk of Biscuits For Smut and The Silver Hawaiian, and the destruction of jazz standard Beautiful Love, adding new dimensions. Hitting 45 on the Billboard Top 200 it remains the highest charting album of their career, and its influence on the fledgling nu metal scene cannot be overstated.
Their most polished album to that point, Aftertaste was recorded as a three-piece after Rob left the band to fill the guitarist spot in Biohazard, this communicated by the three shadowy figures on its sleeve. Eschewing the experimentation and digressions of its predecessor, it is pure Helmet doing what they do best. The pulsating throb of opener Pure once again demonstrated that they knew exactly how best to kick off an album, while the rolling bass groove of the gloriously disaffected Like I Care and the urgent attack of Birth Defect are essential additions to any self-compiled Best Of compilation. Underperforming commercially, the band would split a year later, and had they stayed gone it would have made for a fine headstone.
Size Matters (2004)
After years of a rumoured return with a new project, when Page instead resurrected Helmet in 2003 it was without founding members Henry Bogdan (bass) and John Stanier (drums, now of Tomahawk and Battles). Recruiting former touring guitarist Chris Traynor on bass and John Tempesta (ex-White Zombie) on drums, the result is an album that both sounds and feels like Helmet, and while it is a somewhat hit and miss affair it’s definitely more of the former than the latter. Best here are easily the militaristic throb of See You Dead, the snide, drunken stagger of Everybody Loves You and Unwound, which is among the most melodic and catchiest songs of their career.
It’s hard not to wonder if the latest incarnation of Helmet - including new drummer Mike Jost - were being somewhat sarcastic when it came to titling their sixth full-length, for compared to its predecessors it distinctly lacks colour, and in places gets downright dreary. Knowingly or otherwise, Page also plagiarises his own back catalogue, never for more than a few seconds at a time, but if nothing else the verse of Brand New (ironically) is eerily similar to that of Meantime’s Turned Out. It’s not all bad news though, Gone and 410 make for compelling stompers and are catchy enough to lodge in the cerebral cortex, and solo wise Page is on fire, unleashing discordant hell across nearly every song.
Seeing Eye Dog (2010)
The end of another decade saw another shift in lineup with Kyle Stevenson taking the drum throne and Dan Beeman taking the second guitar slot. Once again, the core Helmet sound survived the revisions, and a number of classic-sounding cuts populate Seeing Eye Dog, best of these the staggering title track and rumbling grooves of White City. However, they also pushed at their boundaries more so than on their recent releases, upping the melody quotient across the board, while the likes of the droning yet catchy LA Water and synth-layered, dreamy instrumental Morphing saw them doing something distinctly different. Whether or not the world needs their cover of The Beatles’ And Your Bird Can Sing is debatable, though.
Dead To The World (2016)
Possibly the finest record to emerge following the band’s resurrection, Dead To The World has a genuine verve to it. This does not mean a full return to the form of the classic lineup, but the album’s energy and their occasional digressions away from the meat and potatoes Helmet sound suits them well. With the exception of Chris Traynor being replaced by Dave Case the Seeing Eye Dog lineup remained intact, and they again go big on the melodies. Bookended by two versions of the hooky Life Or Death, the howling leads of I Love My Guru help make for one of their most memorable moments, while Look Alive has some droning dream-pop to it, and it works nicely. Here’s looking forward to album number nine.
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