Consistency is Good
For internet historians who weren’t around to witness it firsthand, the unimaginable, irrepressible hype that surrounded Page Hamilton and Helmet in the early ’90s is too often overlooked. The combination of metal chops and alt-rock sensibilities–not to mention a thick coating of low gain, caveman guitar sludge–might not seem like a big deal in 2016. However, back in ’92, Strap It On was apparently a radical enough stylistic leap to warrant, as Hamilton popularly alleged in a Spin interview, “an A&R guy at one label [to] tell us that we were the next U2.”
Let us all take a moment to thank our lucky stars that that guy had about as much foresight as, well, the rest of his colleagues and coworkers in the American record industry. While Page hasn’t started abusing his delay pedals or taken to calling himself “The Helm” or something equally ridiculous, there is a good bit of intellectual distance between Dead to the World, Helmet’s first album in six years, and Meantime, the group’s major label breakthrough. This (sort of) goes without saying; it has been almost thirty years since Helmet’s glorious emergence, after all. Without Steve Albini to order them around and throw dirt over anything “too clean,” the rattle and din production that was so quintessentially ’90s is now mostly smoothed over and confined to specific song sections rather than looming over each track like a big, black, misunderstood cloud. It is simply what happens to many legendary groups when they get a little long in the tooth. In songs like “Life Or Death,” Hamilton’s full-throated shout is relegated to a snake-like sneer, not unlike that of his contemporary Billy Corgan, rolling with the weighty jabs that emanate from the ever-churning machine that is Helmet’s trademark rhythm guitar-snare drum interplay.
Helmet’s songs still feel like a series of amicable bludgeonings, perpetrated by the inner monologue of a perpetually dissatisfied man who looks like he could be your uncle. However, cuts like “I Heart My Guru” prominently feature cheeky, Cheap Trick-style guitar squeals and unabashedly overproduced choruses, two things that never would have flown in the old days. But Hamilton has earned his right to relax a little bit. He certainly takes his time with “Expect The World,” a tune with a sea-sickening lurch akin to a non-motorized craft drifting on choppy waters. Much like Seeing Eye Dog and the lighter, more introspective Aftertaste, Dead to the World feels like a swirling cauldron of everything Helmet has ever done or attempted to do, almost bereft of any wholly new ideas.
Yet, given just how many completely original sounds Helmet has thrown at us over the years, this observation is a glaringly unfair criticism. Likewise, it is unfair that Meantime is the yardstick against which everything that Page Hamilton ever does will invariably be measured. He has dabbled in jazz, fused and dissected entire genres, and influenced everyone from Pig Destroyer to Tool to Russian Circles. Yet he will forever be skewered and criminally underrepresented for the mere misstep of dropping his magnum opus a hair too early in his band’s trajectory, and then failing to meet impossible standards of OG fanboys. C’est la vie. Hamilton may feel like he is Dead To The Word, but any rock fans worth their salt knows much differently.