Oh, Page, Page, Page, Page. What happened?
Once the standard bearer for punishing, heavy music that fused punk, heavy metal, and early grunge, Helmet has now turned into a pale imitation of itself. And bandleader Page Hamilton has only himself to blame.
After all, the group was pretty much considered a dead deal at the turn of the century, as the post Meantime albums took a steady dive in quality and sales. In 2004, the band returned. Perhaps Hamilton was tired of hearing thousands of metal bands copying his hard riffs. Maybe he needed some cash to splurge at Ikea. Or maybe he was just bored. Whatever the reason, the band reconvened and issued the less-then-enthralling Size Matters. The band has reached its absolute nadir on Monochrome, which commits the cardinal sin of any music: it is freaking boring.
So boring, in fact, that it is difficult to differentiate the music from song to song. Start with a hard riff, add in a second riff that sorta sets a contrast, add a beat and bassline. Repeat for four minutes. Then move onto the next track and do it again. Not really a recipe for music that sticks in the mind.
It’s not that being repetitive is necessarily bad. After all, you know what you are getting when you first listen to a Ramones or Motorhead album, and you really aren’t that interested when the band takes a turn into the unexpected (you might listen to Lemmy singing a ballad once for a laugh, but you probably don’t mark that song for heavy rotation). No, songs from bands like this that stick in the mind are the ones that they do incredibly well. For two albums (and a good bit of Betty as well) Helmet did it very well. Since then, not so much. On Monochrome? Almost never.
Part of the trouble comes from the rhythm section, which has always propelled the band’s best songs. Here, drummer Mike Jost and bassist Jeremy Chatelain lay down a pedestrian bottom that is neither heavy nor swings. Instead, it just sort of flops there like a fish out of water. Guitarists Hamilton and longtime Helmetite Chris Traynor don’t do much better, failing to come up with any riffs as memorable as “Meantime”, “Unsung”, or “FBLA”. Add in vocals that lack the bite and sarcasm of the group’s earliest material, and you have a recipe for a dull listen that seems to last much longer than 42 minutes.
The real issue is that Helmet helped craft a new sound, but their followers took that foundation and built on it, crafting new genres in their wake. The best of these bands—Killswitch Engage and Lamb of God are two prime examples—are living in the penthouse. Helmet is still stuck on the ground floor.