One Step, One Punch, One Round At A Time – Helmet

Posted: by Findlay

A new monthly meditation in progression in art through music. Each entry will focus on one song, from each album, of one band, chartering their progression, history and sound throughout their career. This will reveal the spine of the bands back catalogue, providing a great jump off point for new listeners and points of debate for fans. This month’s band is alternative metal group Helmet.

Formed in New York in 1989, Helmet are the brainchild of the industrious, and seemingly ageless deity, Page Hamilton. Mixing the heaviness of metal with the simplicity of hardcore punk, the band existed teetering on the edge of a sharp as fuck knife. Known primarily for their riffs, Helmet became THE sound of 90’s aggression and underground anger. In terms of their sound, the band never ripped out huge face-melting technical riffs, but rather sheer hammer-to-anvil riffs, stone-cold stop starts with snare drums pounding down like a fucking blacksmith. To me, Helmet were always way more relatable than a lot of bands from the 90’s because they looked just like regular guys hammering out crazy sounding songs. Goofy looking dudes in shit tshirts and shorts just jamming hard as fuck made me feel so much better about myself than most of the long haired, too-cool grunge chumps. No pretensions.

For this month’s study, I’m going to go a little deeper and talk, yes about a song from each album, but focus on the evolution of Helmet’s riffs and how it represented them at the time. So here goes:

Blacktop – Strap It On, (1990 Amphetamine Reptile)

Helmets classic line-up to end them all. Beginning here and ending in 1998, John Stanier’s pounding toms and dry-as-fuck snare drum, Henry Bogdan’s ULTRA sturdy bass, Peter Mengede’s razor sharp guitar lines and Page’s howls all coalescing together for their first album and hooo boyyyy it’s a good un. Strap It On can seem fairly tame by today’s standards, but holy shit would this have been a fresh as fuck sounding album in 1990. Still in the throes of hair metal and bubble pop, American crowds were desperate for a new sound and Helmet gave it. Still in their infancy the band provided some insanely good bursts of anger and would later shed the Noise Rock elements of Strap It On to fully bloom into their final form. “Blacktop” is an essential. The snare, Page’s shouts sounding like their being bellowed out a bullhorn and the stop-start riff of the verse full of so much swagger you can feel yourself moving to it without meaning to. Just too good. The guitar tone is so cleanly dissonant and distorted, when its being palm-muted for just those tiny moments before being allowed to be released, it gives the undercurrent of the song such a sharpness.
Riff Time: 0:00-0:54

In The Meantime – Meantime (1992/Interscope)

Helmets breakthrough album and one of the definitive albums of the 90’s. Expanding upon their formula from Strap It On and filing the jagged, unfocused edges of its noise elements, Helmet sanded itself down into the perfect machine. The converging points of all influences and frustrations resulting in undiluted rage filtered through a band tighter than an assembly line. I’ve always argued that Meantime is basically an industrial album as well. Where the industrial scene is more focussed on electronic elements and nihilism, Helmet managed to make its music reminiscent of machinery both in its efficiency and sound. All the while making its sound completely organic. Ridiculously good. While there are some incredible riffs on Meantime, nothing can ever meet the albums opener “In The Meantime”. A song beginning with a contradiction. Kicking off with high-speed chaos as the band gallop and gallop to a ring out, we’re witnessing Helmet shedding their own skin. Staniers drums play on their own, guiding you through a room then it all begins. The preliminary riff is a thing of absolute fucking beauty. I can still remember when I first heard it, I was *convinced* I’d heard the heaviest record that could ever be made. But this isn’t even the best part of the song, once that riff stops, it clips itself and is reduced to a continuing 2-stop-then-start guitar line that just begs for you to grimace and go nuts to. If you haven’t broken a lamp by the time Page comes in with “EARTH TONES SUIT YOU/ SO GIVE IT A SMILE” then you’re beyond all hope.
Riff time: The Full Song Is a Riff

Tic – Betty (1994/Interscope)

Helmets third album Betty turned out to be more of their difficult second album. Still retaining their now trademark sound, but now experimenting with sound. From jazz to blues, back to noise rock and post-punk, the album is uneven which even Hamilton acknowledges. The band were hot as fuck by this point. MTV regulars, Woodstock and Lollapalooza alumni and appearing on several soundtracks like Johnny Mnemonic and The Crow. Helmet struck a nerve with audiences. While grunge was still huge business, it had been starting out stay its welcome. All the prepped and packaged label bands were transparent beyond belief and audiences could see it. Bands like Candlebox aping the crooning of bands much better than them and sounding so soft in the process. Helmet were the relief. Betty is directionless anger, but its anger nonetheless. An album full of emotion that the alternative mainstream was completely missing. “Tic” is everything on this album, kneaded and balled. The first time you hear the riff it disappears for a split second longer than it should and your left wondering where it went, then it returns full pelt with Staniers explosive drums which sound impossibly huge, filling the empty spaces with that metallic snare. I swear the guy was playing drums with a hammer. Then in comes Page, less tuneful than he’s ever been, this time he’s just shouting. Fuck being in time. Fuck sounding good. Fuck what you can sell. Take us or leave us. We don’t care.
Riff time: 0:00-0:30

Gigantor – Saturday Morning Cartoon Greatest Hits (1995/MCA)

Hahaha I know right hold on. I know it’s just a cover of a cartoon’s theme song but hear me out. This appearance on a compilation alongside Rev. Horton Heat, Violent Femmes and Butthole Surfers where they all covered cartoon theme songs is secretly the reason I love Helmet so much. I mean, sure its daft that they covered an old Japanese black and white cartoon about a robot and it sounds a bit silly but they couldn’t resist. They had to throw a riff in it just to make it interesting and holy shit does it RIP. It plays earlier in the song, but it’s when it D R O P S at the 2:39 mark is when its full force kicks in. Staccatoed and just totally crushing and rad sounding with Page screeching some feedback over it for good measure. The video itself is part of the reason I love it aswell.  These guys don’t look like superstars or unattainable rock idols, they look like regular, style-less idiots just jumping about and making music. Good Boys.
Riff time: 2:39-3:00

Exactly What You Wanted – Aftertaste (1997/Interscope)

With original guitarist Peter Mengede gone now, Helmet were left to become a 3-piece and were slowly unravelling. Aftertaste would be the final album with the bands original lineup before the bands split in 1998. Hamilton stated that he was trying new things with Aftertaste and was trying to make their messages clearer to fans, retaining their fury but bringing more melody as part of the package. The band built upon their sound by slackening their riffs and unwinding their necks, bringing in a groove-metal and sometimes spacier sound that made perfect sense to their direction. A lot of fans hate Aftertaste which I cant get my head around. There’s some of Helmets heaviest stuff on here but also blended with how melodic and sing-along the vocals are, it’s such a cool and FUN album to put on. Not only that but it’s filled with some of Page’s best lyrics. So naturally “Exactly What You Wanted” is my pick for this album. A short song aye, but filled with the sound of Aftertaste. Dancy little bridges of offbeat palm-mutes and Staniers funky little hardcore verse beat just building you up to the chorus. The groovy riff divebombs into a technical punctuation while Page delivers my favourite Helmet lyric “I LET YOU DOWN AGAIN/ WHATS ANOTHER HARMLESS LIE BETWEEN FRIENDS?” and it’s just so hard not to totally get into it. 
(Side note: apparently this album had a huge influence on Nu-Metal so, you can thank it later)
Riff time: 1:09-1:28

Throwing Punches – Size Matters (2004/Interscope)

NOW WE’RE TALKIN BABY! Size Matters is easily one of the most underloved albums of the 2000s’. Easily. EASILY. After the 1998 break-up, Page wanted to reunite Helmet but due to the broken relationships with previous members, he recruited ex-Orange 9mm bassist Chris Traynor and ex-White Zombie drummer John Tempesta to usher in Helmets 2nd phase. The band were back, and fucking rammed with ideas and influence. New members feeding Page’s work ethic and giving the band something they were slightly lacking before. Dynamics. Size Matters has riffs, no doubt, but it also has incredible production, amazing choruses and a sense of freedom that the previous albums were missing. Pages singing has also progressed from Aftertaste into full blown singing, especially at the choruses which totally elevate the album. There’s still a good few shouts from him, but he’s calmer in his approach to getting his message across. And it’s a sour fucking message. This is the breakup album to end them all. After a tumultuous year-long relationship with Winona Ryder (I am beyond jealous) they split and Page wrote Size Matters. And from the lyrics? Holy shit that relationship sounded like hell on earth. Anyways, ‘Throwing Punches.’ To me? One of Helmets best riffs, hands down. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Listen to it. Beginning with a sharp inhalation then you’re there. A 4 year old could play it, but filtered through the band it just sounds so meaty and angry. The riffs kills second time round when it’s isolated then the drums come back in. It’s like a chainsaw getting revved before being swung. Pages singing sounding more venomous than before, when he sings “JUST A LITTLE GLITCH” you can feel the anger. It’s more tangible than anything on Betty. My secret favourite Helmet album.
Riff time: 1:24-1:47

Gone – Monochrome (2006/Warcon)

Oh man, dwindling returns by the fuckload. Another new drummer, new record label and new producer. It’s really hard to say positive things about Monochrome because it’s not only a huge step back for Helmet in terms of their sound, but it’s one of the most bafflingly mediocre albums I’ve ever heard. As a drummer, I get raging listening to some of the drum work on this album and as a Helmet fan, it’s weird to think a band so talented could sound so diluted and uninteresting. The promise of Size Matters’ progression being shut outside while everyone sits in and watches a turned off tv. Still, “Gone” is on here and it’s the only song worth talking about. It’s actually really good. The staccato riffs in the verse remind me of “Blacktop” off Strap It On, which makes sense thanks to SIO’s producer Wharton Tiers being back. Page’s singing is weird in this song but it actually suits it. He’s singing much higher and the “HEEEYYYYYYYY NOW YOU ARE GONE” harmonies remind me a little bit of Bluetip so that’s cool. Jesus Christ the drumming is abysmal though. 
Riff time: 0:11-0:34

So Long – Seeing Eye Dog (2010/ Work Song) 

Phew, thank Christ that’s over with. After the reception and physical toll of Monochrome, Helmet took time out of touring and promotion to focus on their sound and let their new material come organically as opposed to rush job of its predecessor. Yet another new drummer, another new producer and even adding a new guitarist for measure, Seeing Eye Dog is the progression from Size Matters that everyone begged for. Songs are heavier and darker than they’ve sounded for a long time, the riffs have girth and an underlying fury to them while Page has went back to growling his way across parts. Seeing Eye Dog isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it is a collective sigh of relief from band to fans. “So Long” is the opener and a perfect example of the album. The first 5 seconds crashing and waving goodbye to Monochrome’s puddle, “So Long” turns the key in a Mustang and revs the engine. The verse is quite peppy but then it tumbles into the basement and meets that dischordant as fuck guitar line in the chorus with Page growling “TAKE ALL/ TAKE ALL MY MONEY/GET LOST/ GET LOST NOW HONEY” and it just sounds so menacingly cool. I’ve linked to the KEXP live session of the song because it sounds so much better than the album version, and shows the band as they are now.  Having a good time being heavy as fuck. 
Riff time: 1:05-1:18

Rumours of a new Helmet album have been kicking around recently so I’m super apprehensive because, unlike Deftones, their recent output has been patchy but if it’s an improvement on sound from Size Matters and Seeing Eye Dog? How can you not be excited?