Helmet - Monochrome Review
by Patrick Muldowney
It's difficult to pick the approach by which to examine Helmet and their latest album because there may be a contingency of people who do not know much about the band, countered by music listeners who recall the band's incredible popularity in the early to mid-90s. In my dorm, circa 1993, three albums were in almost every student's collection: Dre's Chronic, Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power, and Helmet's Meantime. The last time I saw Helmet play they were headlining Penn State's Springfest in 1995, and while the band I was working with opened up to a respectable 500 at 10 AM, Helmet played to about 20,000 at 9 PM, and everyone was there to see Helmet. This summer they headline Vans' Warped Tour, and while thousands will see them again, a good few might be meeting Helmet for the first time, since they just reformed two years ago, following a six year hiatus. Monochrome, picking up from the path forged by Meantime, is an excellent product for both the seasoned listener and the developing fan.
Page Hamilton is arguably the best guitarist in rock, combining discipline and creativity to create a sound that can't be contained within a genre. If you read about Helmet, you'll find references to post hardcore, punk, metal, indie, etc. (exclude country and adult contemporary, I think). Monochrome, reflecting Hamilton, is unapologetically hard, but, like past Helmet albums, contains melodies, guitar lines, and song structure which will find fans beyond the metalcore world without insulting their culture. You'll never find Page Hamilton break dancing in an Adidas jumpsuit while performing with Megadeth, which I saw from Jonny Davis (and shamefully, at the time, liked it).
The multiple worlds (of genre) occupied by Helmet seem to have the most obvious distinction in the two different vocal and guitar styles of Page Hamilton (also Traynor on guitar), on Monochrome. Vocally, you'll find one voice that sounds like constipation (or Pagestipation) and another that is melodically and tonally similar to Dave Grohl. Guitarwise, there is metal Paynor versus indie Paynor, the first being crunchy while the other is rawnchy. These two worlds are bare bones Helmet compared to the multitude of worlds displayed on Betty, yet effective all the same. True to form, Monochrome features metal Pagestipation on the first track, "Swallowing Everything". Including about as long a solo ever found on a Helmet track, Hamilton's lyrics expose the inadequacies of humanity, which is another distinguishing feature of Helmet. The lyrics are a commentary on everyday life. In the case of "Swallowing Everything", you'll find a critique on how people are so willing to drown ("sinker, hook and line") their true self.
"Bury Me" is a standout track on the disc. Beginning with a guitar riff akin to Jawbox's "Savory", the song rips into a heavy guitar progression with a guttural, "Bury me alive and pretend I'm away." This is also when the rhythm section slams. I got so used to hearing the piccolo snare pop during Helmet that it bothered me at first, but once Mike Jost delivered this performance on track three, "Screw the piccolo!" seemed the proper attitude to adopt. "Bury Me" dynamically transitions to an outro that is melodically indie rock, as Hamilton drives the sonic atmosphere with a repeated, "I'm alright now." This resolution seems promising based on the opening, though the guitars become more frenzied in the waning moments and vocals shift back to guttural, making one wonder what he means by "alright".
Toward the middle of Monochrome, "Money Shot" and "Gone" are perfectly paired. The first has a more brooding tone, with a slower tempo, and the story of a female character using sex to feel wanted. This isn't necessarily an original topic, but Hamilton and Traynor portray an emotion in the guitar work that is neither sympathetic nor vindictive toward the lyrics, but somehow gets to the problem of a world with such characters and such plots. "Gone" immediately picks the tempo back up without vocal Pagestipation; a certain post-hardcore romp featuring a poignant drum solo to death, the simple context of the song.
Monochrome aptly maneuvers between the two worlds it encompasses; proving, once again, that fluidity is what makes the band great. Depending on the person and the song, I might refer to Helmet as a bit like Sabbath, or Foo Fighters with balls. Most importantly, Helmet has continually proved that there is no substitution for talent, and Monochrome is further evidence.
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