Guest Review – Helmet – Strap It On (Sean Caldwell)

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Helmet

Strap It On

Amphetamine Reptile

Originally released: ‘90

Re-released: 11/91 via Interscope

 

My first jazz records may possibly have been by Helmet.

Pondering their arrangements, metallic and noisy with the oddest arrhythmic attacks, perplexing and at times frustratingly off time, my tape deck would muscle this strangeness out of the speakers and I would try and wrap my head around it. I found Helmet at the same time the major labels were looking for the next Nirvana, the band’s Amphetamine Reptile debut, Strap It On, unknown to me when Meantime was issued laced with record industry hopes for another huge payday. Whether that payday came or not, Helmet’s first MTV single, “Unsung,” got the band some notice and their sturdy drop-D nuance became a late-90s staple, a sound unfortunately propagated by the raft of nü metal acts that permeated the airwaves and feigned (almost mocked) Helmet’s solid innovation.

Through music’s metamorphosis post punk and pre 90s Alternative, jazz and rock haven’t been the oddest bedfellows. Some could credit No Wave with merging free jazz and punk rock into its abrasive and often unlistenable mass of discord and chaos. The more workhorse permutations you can hear in the minimalism of The Pop Group, the fascinating rhythm arrangements of the Minutemen, the acid-soaked progressions of Saccharine Trust and Black Flag’s later instrumental experiments. Helmet’s vocalist/guitarist and principal songwriter, Page Hamilton, was a student of jazz guitar before distortion entered his world, and his precision-through-repetition device brought imbalance to the otherwise very established mode of riff-reliant rock music, even “metal” to be more specific. Though, novice in my knowledge of pre-Alternative America when Meantime met my stereo, I’d never heard time signatures like Helmet’s before despite familiarity with progressive rock via Yes and avant-garde weirdness via Frank Zappa. From first listen, there seemed be nothing particularly mind-blowing in terms of Helmet’s depth of construct, (Strap It On begins with a song called, “Repetition,” and the song itself says as much.), but the band’s approach disguised its complication with simplicity. “In The Meantime” is mostly one note. One note. But, through arrangement and attack, the song becomes a study in economy and structure. It would easy to dismiss something like this as lazy, but the idea of expanding a single note into a very comprehensive piece of music is in my mind significant, pointing not only to the importance of notes in music but also to placement, construct and improvisation. Helmet is essentially bebop for alterna-heads, despite the discipline behind them.

Before I’d heard Strap It On, I’d heard many of its tracks through a cassette I’d made of a live bootleg, Cole, which also had early versions of songs that would be featured on Meantime. During some incidental and expected audience noise, Hamilton drowsily states, “We’re Helmet,” and “Sinatra”’s bass throb and slow tempo conveys promise of sonic onslaught which is met and modestly applauded. Hearing the noise Hamilton and Co. churned out onstage, Strap It On’s seeming lack of production value mimics a bootleg live recording, the band’s amplification allowed to crunch and sizzle which drowns out the low end. The only real exception to this is the midway section of “FBLA” where rhythm guitarist Peter Mengede stays dormant during a guitar solo. For Helmet, though, guitars usually piggyback atop Henry Bogdan’s groove, start/stop chords calculatedly harmonizing while occasionally allowed to break off for sake of solo or thickening agent. “Rude” illustrates this well, some liberty enjoyed to jam on the song’s rhythm. By contrast, the monosyllabic, distorted chunks of “Bad Mood” convey little interest in exploring harmony or melody. Even Hamilton’s solo has difficult breaking the song’s stride.

Variations of this construct ensue as Strap It On continues, songs like “Blacktop” and “Distracted” coming up with a sturdy riff-stomp-change-up-riff-stomp template without causing the band to exhaust its ideas or rely too heavily on an outline. The music is exciting above everything: the tunes, the groove, rife with payoff. “Make Room” takes a stab at Zeppelin-ish blues and the band loses no ground employing their methodology. “Murder” grinds itself to a distorted pulp, a barely sensible mash of noise rock with drummer John Stanier keeping some semblance of form intact. A sensible end as their follow up begins with a blast of power, waking up mainstream America with yet another reason to pay attention.

 

About the author

Sean is a music writer/blogger who writes for Stereokiller, No Ripcord, Letters From A Tapehead and Kicking Against The Pricks.


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