Khaki and black were the colours of the night, as an all male crowd (hardly a no-tail in sight) gathered around the new-look Helmet to hear what they had to say after a seven year absence.
Promoting a new album, ‘Size Matters’, slagged off in some quarters for not sounding like Helmet and touring with a band featuring only one-and-a-half of the old lineup, slagged off in some quarters for not being the real Helmet; the question begged to be asked: Were we going to get Helmet or some other, substandard, softer headgear – a beret perhaps, or a beanie?
The question was answered instantly as the band came on and launched into ‘Bad Mood’ from the debut album, 1991’s ‘Strap It On’. Hard-edged and buzzing, raw as a scraped knee, this sounded like the band of old and the crowd knew it. They started bouncing.
And so did the new bassist, Frank Blasko (along with the drummer, John Tempesta, an ex member of Rob Zombie’s band). My how he bounced. Striding, lunging and jumping he was a very bouncy man indeed. Putting even Tigger to shame he didn’t stop moving for the rest of the gig. By contrast guitarist Chris Traynor (of Orange 9mm and the ‘half’ member – he toured with Helmet on their last tour as well as laying down some studio guitar parts for the last album ‘Aftertaste’) was an ocean of statesman-like calm.
Next up was ‘Smart’, the opening track off the new album. Having already listened to and hugely enjoyed ‘Size Matters’ I was pleased we were getting straight into the new material. It’s bollocks to say that the album doesn’t sound like Helmet. Page Hamilton was always the backbone of the group: founder member, writer of most of the songs, shit-hot-jazz-trained-guitarist-turned-noise-merchant and distinctive vocalist – he’s as Helmet as a tin hat with military insignia, and where he goes the Helmet sound follows.
And what a distinctive sound it is. Using a technique/style pioneered by the Pixies, but with a few tons of rusty metal bolted on, the songs often follow a pattern of hard ass verse and gentler chorus: chainsaw bass, AK-47 guitars and nail gun vocals softening as the song moves into the refrain with the vocals mixed back into the instruments as both become more melodic and harmonious. At this point Helmet can sometimes sound like the Foo Fighters – the next track to be played, also off ‘Size Matters’, ‘Crashing Foreign Cars’, is a good example of this – except the Foo Fighters don’t deserve the comparison. They are a bland wall of sound when compared with Helmet, lacking the hard edge or distinctive vocals; a vanilla milkshake versus a Jack and Coke. And thrice as dull as the milky beverage. A more flattering comparison, and one with more testicles, would be System of a Down. Clearly influenced by Helmet they take the hard/soft dichotomy to it’s auditory extreme.
Next up was the classic ‘Milquetoast’, off arguably their best album, 1994’s ‘Betty’. As gritty and raw as it gets, listening to this is like licking cream off sandpaper: it lacerates but it’s worth it!
This was followed by the charismatic ‘See You Dead’, the best track on ‘Size Matters’. The chugging, bouncing bassline reminiscent of ‘No One Knows’ by Queens of the Stone Age sent Blasko into paroxysms of pogo-ing delight and put the seal on what had developed into one of those rare, joyful gigs of friendly, grooving moshpit and many smiles. Jolly banter from Page Hamilton (grinning and angular, the braying mantis), clearly suffering from the effects of last night: "Phew! Amsterdam! What a city! How do you guys take it…?" added to this atmosphere of bonhomie that was blissfully in contrast to the sonic shrapnel that was being hurled from stage.
The set built up and up to my personal highlight, ‘Wilma’s Rainbow’ from ‘Betty’, which was corrupted and twisted out of shape, almost deconstructed as it went straight into ‘In the Meantime’, the title track of the second album and another Helmet classic.
So, what of the critics who say this isn’t Helmet? Pah! Helmet are still the same band with the same sound. Live they’re as raw as ever and on vinyl, if anything’s changed it’s that they’ve matured a little. They’ve ripened, the edges are less rough, less angular and they are even better for it. To use a cooking metaphor, the old Helmet was like a veggie spag-bol put together by some students. They added tofu-mince, tomatoes, salt and pepper and a few herbs and got a good, solid, no nonsense dish. However, maturity and a little experience dictates that if you add a teaspoonful of sugar and a little cream, the meal is transformed into something a little richer, a little more haute cuisine. It still has the same kick, it’s just a little smoother. I guess it all depends on whether you like cream and sugar with your Helmet.
Words : Nick Spong