by Jeremy Hart
THE ENGINE ROOM -- 10/12/2004: Let's say you're back in your hometown from wherever you currently live, and you go to a party. You're moving through the crowd, saying hello to people, joking with those you know and trying to be friendly to those you don't, when you spot an old friend from back in high school standing across the room. He was one of your best buds back in the day, but you guys lost touch not long after graduation, and you haven't seen him in years. Happy to see him, you head on over, give him a hug and ask him what's up, eager to hear how his life's been going. And then, as he talks, you realize that he's saying the same damn things he said back in the 12th grade.
You might not admit it to your coworkers, but you've grown up. You've got a job, a wife, a house, maybe a kid, and you're a real-live, full-fledged adult. You've changed, matured. Your friend from the 12th grade, on the other hand, hasn't; for him, it's like high school never ended, like the decade or so since was just grades 13-22, ten more years spent doing the same old crap you all did way back when. And in the end, he's a pretty sad spectacle for it. You feel sorry for him, but he's making you uncomfortable, so you come up with an excuse to flee to the kitchen and get another beer, leaving him standing by the stereo.
I'm guessing most people out there, even the relatively young among us, have had an experience or two like this one. It's inevitable; most people change, but there are always those who don't, who refuse to leave what they see as their glory days behind. I've had experiences myself like the one described above, unfortunately; they're largely why I haven't bothered with my high school reunions. It occurred to me recently, though, that bands, just like people, can also fall into the "not-moving-on" trap -- that's why there is such a thing as a "reunion tour." After all, who likes to admit that their days of rocking arenas and getting chicks are as dead as their mid-'80s wardrobe of skinny ties and parachute pants?
A friend invited me along to see Helmet play in town one night at The Engine Room, and being a fan from the early days of the band, I was curious to see what the current incarnation of the band (Helmet Mk. II?) sounded like. This wasn't strictly a reunion, per se -- I knew the band had been pretty much gutted after the commercial flops of 1994's Betty and 1996's Aftertaste, with John Tempesta (Testament and Rob Zombie) and Frank Bello (holy freakin' crap -- Anthrax) replacing drummer John Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan, respectively. The "new" band also includes guitarist Chris Traynor (Bush), who toured live with the band back in the Aftertaste days. (By the way, John S.'s hanging with Duane Denison's band Tomahawk these days, and Henry played for a while with H-town expat Bliss Blood in her luaua-music ensemble The Moonlighters and apparently now lives in Hawaii.)
All in all, the only real original member left is guitarist/vocalist/bandleader Page Hamilton, who's been busy himself in the intervening years, doing production stuff, movie soundtracks, and even playing in another short-lived band, Gandhi. Even with him still acting as leader and frontman for Helmet, I figured that having a totally different rhythm section would at least mix things up a bit, right? I'd caught a few tracks off of Size Matters, the resurrected band's new album (out in September of 2004), and at a quick listen, they weren't half bad. Why not hit the town and maybe relive a teeny-tiny piece of my metal youth?
So, I went. The openers, Oakland natives Totimoshi, were pretty good, all things considered...at least, until vocalist/guitarist Tony Aguilar opened his mouth. For the first song or three, I was fairly impressed -- the guitars were heavy and sludgy, Melvins-style, but with some odd, drone-y, hypnotic rhythms behind. I initially thought they were an instrumental band in the old-school AmRep vein, and that wouldn't have been too bad, really; some days I really, truly miss bands like The Jesus Lizard and Earth. What killed Totimoshi's appeal for me, though, were Aguilar's growly, unintelligible vocals. I've been a metal fan since I was a kid, and I've even grown to appreciate more modern folks like Shadows Fall and Isis, but the one thing I've never been able to stand is the Cookie Monster thing. Sorry, guys, but I just don't get the appeal. Try actually singing sometime, okay?
When Helmet hit the stage, the place suddenly seemed a lot more crowded. Metal kids and big, beefy guys in worn-thin rock band t-shirts pressed forward, crushing the front row right up against the speakers. And then, as the band started to play, they...well, they just stood there. Hamilton and company blazed through every song I'd heard off of the new album, and for the most part it seemed as if the crowd hadn't even heard it, or at least didn't care. The audience stood, some heads bobbing appreciatively, some people smiling in the thrall of obviously Helmet-induced rapture, but mostly not moving, just standing there, listening carefully for the songs they knew.
Of course, the band couldn't get away without playing their older material, and they dutifully trotted out classics off Meantime (I remember hearing "Unsung," in particular) and Betty, ("Milquetoast," I believe, among others) even throwing in a few from Strap It On; I didn't recognize any off of Aftertaste, but since I don't know that album real well, there were probably a few of those songs in there, too. The night came to a climax when the band played their '92 hit, "In the Meantime," which is still a brutal, pummeling assault of a song despite its age -- for the first time, the entire crowd exploded into a frenzied mosh pit, just a sea of elbows, feet, and heads thrashing around.
It was a good show. I should say that now (and yes, I do mean it, and I enjoyed myself quite a bit), because what comes next will probably sound less than complimentary. To put it simply, it felt like while I'd moved on, Helmet hadn't. Twelve years on from the first time I ever heard 'em, and the sound is remarkably the same. Not that that's truly bad, mind you; these guys defined the face of metal for a good decade, and every single "new metal" band out there today owes them a huge debt, if not royalty checks. Helmet were one of the first bands to make metal that was actually intelligent, going at it with a jazzbo's inventiveness and pretty much throwing what a lot of people thought of as "metal" on the junkpile. For that, Hamilton and his former bandmates have my respect.
With that said, however, it would appear that the band has yet to move on from that point. The Helmet of Size Matters might as well be the same band as the Helmet of Meantime, for all the difference there is in the sound. So yes, while they put on a good show, it felt less like a new beginning than a yearning for days gone by. Twelve years have passed, and yet there's not a bit of difference to the band's sound -- it doesn't sound to me, at least, like any progression has taken place.
As evidenced by the reaction to the band's old stuff, people out there do indeed still love Helmet -- but it's not a dynamic kind of love. What they love, for the most part, is the music they first heard when they were kids, back in the good old days. They're enjoying it because it's comforting, a happy reminder, not because hey, they want to hear the new stuff the band's doing. I think even Hamilton recognized that at the show I saw, because he made a seemingly bitter comment at one point about how people only wanted to hear "In the Meantime," so he didn't even really want to play it. While I feel for him -- no musician ever, ever wants to walk in Wreckless Eric's shoes -- I have to ask: have you really given us any reason to want to hear much else?
Don't get me wrong; there'll always be a special place in my musical memory for Helmet. That night, they put on a damn good show, and I loved it. Viewed from a distance, though, that performance looks less like the fury of a reinvigorated "new" band rising from the ashes of the old to do even greater things and more like the drunken reminisces of that old buddy at the party who just won't shut up about how cool it was back in senior year.
Helmet -- http://www.helmetmusic.com/;
Totimoshi -- http://www.totimoshi.com/; Interscope Records -- http://www.interscope.com/;
Chris Traynor -- http://www.christraynor.com/;
John Tempesta -- http://www.johntempesta.com/;
Born Annoying (Helmet fan site) -- http://www.bornannoying.com/