Helmet were a band apart in their prime. East Coast, not West. Cerebral and detached compared to their Seattle peers, yet capable of the same volcanic aggression. Often labelled ‘avant metal’ by critics, but having nothing in common with commercial pop-metal, and only a passing similarity to thrash. Helmet, then, didn’t fit neatly in anyone else’s box. They seem in retrospect to have been fathers to the heavier math-rock bands. Listen to the way drummer John Stanier changes time from four beats to three under the repeating riff during the middle section of In the Meantime – all of math rock is there, in the same way that all of surrealism is in the first three lines of ‘Prufrock’.
They are, however, a hard band to love. Page Hamilton, Helmet’s singer, songwriter and guitar player, often comes over prickly and defensive in interviews, trying to convince the world to see his music the same way he sees it: as derived from his jazz guitar studies. Hence the reading of the standard Beautiful Love from Betty, which changes suddenly from a clean solo guitar playing in a chord-melody style to squonky heavy rock that seemingly bears no resemblance to the jazz guitar still playing softly in the right-hand speaker. It’s a curious beast, not really a hybrid, more of a superimposition (Hamilton is apt to talk about such concepts in interviews, so conceivably that might have been the point).
Clever though this have been, the band were always at their best when their ferocity was tightly focused, and so their finest moment remains In the Meantime, the near-title track of their album Meantime, released in 1992. Meantime was their first major label record. The band had been the subject of a bidding war the previous year; with labels desperate to find the next Nirvana, industry eyes had simultaneously lighted on a group on Amphetamine Reptile that had the right guitar sound and attitude.
In the Meantime is a furious song, beginning with drummer John Stanier rolling around his toms and bashing his cymbals, while Hamilton makes squealing tremolo-picked noise. Then, over a held D, Stamier plays half-time on the hats while stomping out a syncopated hip-hop kick drum beat. The band then drop in with the song’s main riff, over the same beat as before, before the rhythm section shift to simpler pattern, which Hamilton syncopates against with one D chord. This same feel will power the verses along, but before the first verse has even started, they’ve burned through enough cool ideas to keep many bands going for a whole song.
Key to all this, of course, is John Stanier, now in the experimental rock group Battles, who record for Warp. His reputation as a powerful and inventive drummer is even higher today than it was twenty years ago, but even then he was grabbing the ears of the Modern Drummer crowd. He is typical of a generation of American drummers who have hands schooled in the marching-band tradition and a bass-drum foot schooled by hip-hop. His complex, busy kick drum work throughout In the Meantime is a masterclass. I imagine it’s somewhat galling to Page Hamilton that his old band is known to a generation of kids as the band that the Battles guy with the really high cymbal* used to be in.
Hamilton is fond of saying that Helmet’s heavy rock swings**, but really I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Stanier tends to swing more nowadays with Battles. Twenty years ago, playing heavy rock with his left hand and hip-hop with his right foot, he was more machine-like. Certainly he had less of that back-of-the-beat feel that, say, Matt Cameron had, let alone rock drummers of an earlier era (Levon Helm or Ringo, say). Music that swings feels good. Listening to Helmet is designed to make you feel tense, clenched. If Helmet had swung, they wouldn’t have been so heavy, so claustrophobic. They’re not too well known in their own right now, and Hamilton can never resist an invitation to intellectualise, recontextualise and justify the music he made twenty years ago***, but In the Meantime is one of the greatest records of its era, and you don’t have to listen hard or long to hear their influence on later heavy rock bands of all kinds.
Helmet live, early 1990s. Photo by Bill Keaggy
* Stanier plays with a crash cymbal around seven feet in the air: Modern Drummer: What’s with the super-high crash? John Stanier: I didn’t want any cymbals but the hi-hats at first. Then I was like, “Okay, I’ll use one,” but I didn’t want it near me because I’d use it too much. So I set it high so I’d have to work to get to it. I wanted it to be significant; I use it as a marker. It’s like a master reset button when I go to the cymbal. Plus, it looks cool.
** ‘I’ve had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, “Helmet’s the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There’s a groove to it”.’ Interview with Page Hamilton, Invisible Oranges
***’Then my manager tells me James Hetfield said Helmet is one of his top five bands of all time and you’ve had Elton John and David Bowie say that they love your band. Musicians are still inspired by what you are doing.’ Interview with Page Hamilton by Justin M. Norton, About.com; ‘So many musicians like the band – and I’m talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there’s this other musical mind at work in there. It’s not just hardcore, it’s not just metal. It’s got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it’s interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, “I told you you were going to influence me”.’