Helmet

Meantime (Interscope ’92) Rating: A-
In a post Nirvana world, major labels scanned the world over looking for the “next big thing.” Honing their skills right here in my backyard of New York City, Helmet was the subject of a fierce bidding war, finally accepting a huge sum of money to sign with Interscope. I wonder if Interscope knew exactly what they were getting, because Helmet is a decidedly uncommercial and aggressive unit, though back then they were a definite "buzz band" with a substantial underground following. Sure enough, based on artistic merit alone, Helmet scored straight from the gate on their major label debut, actually the band's second album after 1990's Strap It On. Meantime is all about extreme, grinding guitars and tight to the bursting point playing. Although main singer/guitarist Page Hamilton’s "singing" (using either his plain spoken voice, his thrashy guttural voice, or his piercing screams) and songwriting aren't especially impressive, they provide the necessary framework for his band’s pulverizing riffs and jazz inspired interplay. Indeed, although they certainly do stress brute strength, Helmet's disciplined and at-times dissonant attack is influenced by John Coltrane and noisy avant-garde composers like Bela Bartok and Glenn Branca as much as it is by heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath (unsurprisingly, the band adopted a "we're not metal stance," a la Soundgarden). With the bottomed out drumming relentless (John Stanier is a powerhouse), the bass big and menacing, and the guitars simply colossal (that's Peter Mengede on rhythm guitar; his post-Helmet project Handsome is also worth checking out), Helmet builds an impressive if exhausting momentum. True, aside from “In the Meantime” and “Unsung” (best riffs of the decade?), not too many of these individual songs stand out, and I certainly need to be in the mood for this heavy assault on the senses. Even though I find their crunch cathartic and admire their first rate musicianship, Helmet is not for everyone. Note: 1994's Betty was more experimental and more inconsistent, while 1997's Aftertaste was (somewhat disappointingly) more straightforward. Still, both were quality efforts if not quite up to the high standard of Meantime. With the band's buzz gone, the band quietly disbanded in 1999, though Hamilton came back with a brand new lineup and a new Helmet album called Size Matters in 2004.

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