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Helmet - "Monochrome"

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Tuesday, July 11, 2006 @ 1:50 PM


On Warcon Records

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The return of ground-breaking noisemongers Helmet in 2004 was greeted, pretty much, by a collective yawn. Their comeback album, Size Matters, was a big letdown that didn’t exactly fly off the shelves — indeed the band parted ways with Interscope, which apparently didn’t learn its lesson from the one-hit wonders the first time around, soon thereafter. Helmet did much of their touring on the club circuit and the all-star rhythm section mainman Page Hamilton rounded up — drummer John Tempesta and Anthrax bassist Frank Bello — didn’t stick around very long, either.

It certainly didn’t help that Size Matters was such a lackluster effort, serving up a mishmash of what sounded like leftovers from work Helmet did 10 years earlier on Betty and Aftertaste, with the kind of growl-and-sing vocalizing that’s so in vogue these days. But there were already plenty of shitty post-hardcore/metal-core acts around — many of whom followed in Helmet’s wake — doing much the same thing, so the band really didn’t have anything new, exciting or different to offer.

But Hamilton obviously was undeterred. He and longtime guitarist lined up a new rhythm section — drummer Mike Jost and bassist Jeremy Chatelain who, ironically, was the singer in ex-Helmet guitarist Peter Mengede’s short-lived Handsome — and went back at it to see if they could get it right the second time. The resulting Monochrome does get the Helmet ship steering back on course, sort of, but the big question still remains, does anybody care?

For Monochrome, Helmet travel even farther back in the sonic way-back machine, revisiting their first two albums, Strap It On and 1992’s breakout Meantime, when the band’s abrasive sound and freewheeling attack mode yielded some truly glorious noise. A hit single, in this case “Unsung,” was probably the worst thing that could have happened to Helmet, as the commercial pressures to follow it up brought more melody, structure and slickness into the mix. And for a band whose main strengths were caterwauling guitars, battering ram rhythms and Hamilton’s bulldog cadence, it was a recipe for disaster.

Monochrome sticks to the basics. With Strap/Meantime producer Wharton Tiers stripping away any studio sheen to expose Helmet’s raw nerve, and Hamilton and company, for the most part, simply going for the throat, it’s a far more effective and satisfying strategy. The squealing guitars of “Howl” that lead into the surging “410” are worth it alone. Distortion, feedback and in-your-face intensity are more the rule than the exception here, with “Brand New,” “On Your Way Down” and “Gone” delivering Helmet’s concussive cocktail of discordance and lock-step precision with authority. And mid-tempo tracks like “Bury Me” “Almost Out of Sight” benefit from Tiers’ rough-hewn treatment and the earbleed-inducing solos that screech like nails across a blackboard midway through.

The title track and the perverse “Money Shot” see Helmet still making a play at melody — and still coming up short because of Hamilton’s clipped monotone and the sleepy, spartan music that accompanies it. But Helmet don’t try to force the issue here, and that’s a smart move. Ditto the abandonment of the Jekyll-and-Hyde vocal tradeoffs.

But in the end, does Monochrome actually accomplish anything, other than prove that Helmet can still sound like they did 15 years ago? Not really. Sure it kicks ass, but if the band think a trip down memory lane is going to help them reconquer the hardcore/metal throne from the Ozzfest hordes, they’re in for a big letdown themselves.

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