I first discovered the personality of Page Hamilton by reading an article about Helmet in a guitar magazine. He struck me as someone who had a level head sitting atop his mildly chipped shoulders. Throughout the interview, he discouraged the notion of any musical genre having a sense of purity, talked down to rock stars, and wasn’t close to taking his band’s success for granted. The seminal post-metal (or whatever you want to call them) outfit Helmet had just released Betty, the loudly-heralded follow-up to their masterpiece Meantime. Despite the recent departure of guitarist Peter Mengede, Hamilton was determined to keep his head down while continuing to drive the band forward. More than 20 years later, the story is largely the same. Just as it was in 1994, our cultural landscape is still littered with stupid politics and vacuous pop stars, and Hamilton and his latest Helmet lineup are ready to roar by the idiot parade with their pulverizing and confrontational new album Dead to the World.
Dead to the World is the first new Helmet album in six years, but there is no drama in the band’s return nor any rustiness in their awakening. Their lineup is almost the same as 2010’s Seeing Eye Dog with the exception of Dave Case now joining on bass guitar. And just as Seeing Eye Dog found Hamilton on a little quest to expand the musical ground covered by a heavy guitar crunch, Dead to the World dutifully follows suit. “Bad News”, the album’s first leaked track, safely paves a way for any future interest Helmet may have in brash pop. Their cover of Elvis Costello’s “Green Shirt” retains the original’s sneer, demonstrating that Helmet owe much of their melodic strength to the tuneful side of punk rock.
Rest assured, Page Hamilton is still kind of pissed off. The leadoff track alone puts our era’s bad vibes into jaded perspective: “Catch phrases”, “swallowing the news”, “punchlines”, and ultimately “Baby, nobody cares / If it is life or death.” The guitar work on the chorus is deceptively impressive, masking the ascending, awkward chords in a mound of distortion. Power-chord rawk it is not. But just in case you think you got off light with the first track, “I Love My Guru” comes in hot off “Life or Death’s” heels and sputters away in a few rousing screams of “shut the fuck up!” Hamilton’s vocal performance on “Die Alone” is the kind that gives you a sore throat just by listening to it. I hear it and wonder how guys like him and Jaz Coleman haven’t growled themselves mute by now. But how else can you sing about someone who spent their life “judging everybody”?
Dead to the World ends with a half-tempo take on the opening track “Life or Death”. Elsewhere in the album, you can hear Hamilton attempting to fuse the new pop-friendly Helmet with the earlier dirge-friendly Helmet on songs such as the title track, “Expect the World”, and “Look Alive”. If there is any moment of musical compromise to be had on Dead to the World, it doesn’t stick around long enough to draw any attention. Including the slowed-down “Life or Death”, the album falls just shy of 37 minutes. A shorter running time means that Helmet has more time to play to their strengths while keeping a watchful eye on the things they’re curious about. For now, it’s a good balance, but surely Hamilton can’t be done screwing with the formula just yet.