After a seven-year absence (only six if you count the Aftertaste tour), Helmet has once again reared its loud, ugly head. The power-metal brainchild that frontman/guitarist Page Hamilton started in the early '90s has pretty much influenced just about every loud "new metal" act heard on the radio today, so it's high time that the original gangsta came back and showed those mark-ass bands how to do it right. Size Matters pretty much picks up where 1997's Aftertaste left off -- although the players on the field have changed. John Tempesta (White Zombie, Testament) replaces John Stanier on drums, and Frank Bello (Anthrax) replaces Henry Bogdan on bass in Helmet's live incarnation. Chris Traynor, who played guitar for Helmet on the Aftertaste tour, returns on guitar and also handles the bass duties on Size Matters. This massive line-up change may freak some die-hard fans out (even though we should all remember that the band has had a notoriously rotating second guitar position), but the only thing missing here is Stanier's trademark snare pop -- other than that, the new guys are more than up to the task of playing the stop-and-start metal riffs with precision. And when you get right down to it, Helmet was always Page Hamilton's "thing," anyway.
So, how does he do his "thing" in 2004? Well, as I already mentioned, Size Matters is the natural extension of the material on Aftertaste -- still loud and powerful, but with an ear toward melody and songwriting this time around. Hamilton has done stints with some of the best songwriters in rock during Helmet's downtime -- Bowie, Bono, Charlie Clouser, Gavin Rossdale (uh, maybe scratch that last one, but you get the idea) -- and it seems as if he's picked up a thing or two along the way. What results is Helmet with hooks, especially on tracks like "Enemies" and "Unwound," which end up being the most accessible and "radio-friendly" tracks in the Helmet catalog. At times, the band even begins to sound a bit like former tourmates Jawbox in that regard.
Fear not, though; the abrasiveness and staccato riffing haven't gone away. In fact, the first two tracks on the album ("Smart" and "Crashing Foreign Cars") harken back to the band's beginnings, perhaps as if to say: "Yeah, we're back, bitches, and we can still pull this stuff off and kick your head in with the rock...but in a couple tracks we're going to show you some new tricks we've learned." And the stuff works. Here's hoping that this incarnation of the band enjoys another seven-year stint. You hear that, Rob Zombie? You just keep making sequels to House of 1000 Corpses. You can not have your drummer back. (MHo)
(Interscope Records -- 2220 Colorado Avenue, Santa Monica, CA. 90404; http://www.interscope.com/; Helmet -- http://www.helmetmusic.com/)
The High Violets
I love the throwbacks to the early-'90s-era British rock. Refusing to let the style die an untimely death, The High Violets are definitely at the top of the new "shoegazer" pack. Perfectly crafted, yet somehow still raw at the proper moments, 44 Down is a blissful extension of what bands like Ride and Lush started, yet The High Violets' music doesn't sound like an out-of-date carbon copy of their counterparts'. Instead, they have taken their influences one step further and created an otherworldly-sounding album that would make Kevin Shields jealous.
Hailing from Eugene, Oregon, and voted the top band in that city's scene by the purveyors of all things cool, Rolling Stone, The High Violets' blend of psychedelia and pop have earned the band -- guitarist/vocalist Kaitlyn Ni Donovan, guitarist/vocalist Clint Sargent, bassist Allen Davis, and drummer Luke Straholta -- a lot of recognition, including radio play in Seattle and Portland and gigs at The Shoegazer's Ball. And with good reason. 44 Down is an album that fans of ethereal, dreamy, guitar-based pop will cling to. It's an excellent album, and one that deserves attention.
Ni Donovan's sultry vocals are a cross between Kay Hanley and Liz Fraser, and much of the guitar sounds similar to early work by Nick McCabe. The rhythm section, very important yet often unnoticed in this type of music, work well together and propel the music along at an excellent pace.
44 Down begs to be listened to late at night, either while driving or while alone; it's a perfect album for either situation. And unlike much of the bands from this genre, The High Violets are not content to be relegated to background music. Their songs are lush affairs that make you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention. It's just that good. (DAC)
(Reverb Records -- 2736 N Argyle, Portland, OR 97217; http://www.reverbrecords.net/; The High Violets -- http://www.thehighviolets.com/)