Helmet - Biography
Countless alt-metal bands were justifiably brushed under the carpet of modern rock, but one band under that classification, the band that practically gave the genre its name, truly deserved more. Helmet was, for better or worse, New York's lone answer to the Seattle Sound which flooded the airwaves in the early 90's. For a good while, the band was expected to sell millions of copies of their sophomore effort, Meantime, an album that was visceral, engaging, and different, but ultimately inferior to Nirvana's Nevermind. Things did not pan out the way industry experts had guessed or the band's record label had hoped. Meantime has become a well-respected gem of an album, a well-kept-secret in hard rock, and little besides. After that initial commercial disappointment (which cannot be understated, as the preceding bidding war over the band had reportedly landed them a million dollar deal), Helmet never fully recovered, critically or commercially. They are still playing today (although singer/guitarist remains the only original member), and while no one can know what kind of sludgy, deafening masterpiece they might come up with one day, for now, their best efforts are considered to be the first two albums they ever made.
Page Hamilton was born in Oregon and moved to New York City for the purpose of studying jazz music. What happened instead was a rush of inspiration from rather different sources, indie rock and, more specifically, post-punk. Bands like Sonic Youth and Big Black shaped Hamilton's guitar playing, as well as his ideals about himself as a musician. Hamilton took his new influences and crafted a sound of his own, using drop-D tunings and even some avant-garde jazz elements, such as odd time signatures and dissonance, to create a mash-up of hardcore punk and hard rock that would stop and start on a dime. Like him, the bandmates Hamilton found in New York had migrated there from elsewhere. Bassist Henry Bogdan shared his Oregon roots while guitarist Peter Mengede came from Australia and drummer John Stainer hailed from Florida.
Helmet were soon signed to Amphetamine Reptile, where they released their debut LP, Strap it On, in November 1990. The album breezed by in just a little over half an hour, leaving the listener feeling almost assaulted. There were few melodies, nothing that can be called “catchy,” as the band sacrificed hooks for sound and texture. If any one track stood out, it was the menacing “Sinatra,” four and a half minutes of heavy, grinding confusion. Beneath the layered guitars, was there much of a melody? Not really. And yet, something about the song was memorable, and not just its annihilating volume. “Sinatra,” like many of the songs on Strap it On, had little regard for its audience. It was relentlessly dissonant, so reckless in its repetitive churn that one couldn't help feeling hypnotized.
After their debut, a bidding war amongst labels began, one so frenzied that reports of 18 to 22 labels were falling over themselves to sign Helmet. Ultimately, Interscope Records were the victors and their first order of business was to re-release the band's abrasive debut. Subsequently, the label distributed the band's follow-up LP, Meantime, in June 1992. At that point, Nirvana had broken and Helmet were the east coast's only answer to the grunge scene of the pacific northwest that had taken over popular culture. Interscope and industry observers believed that Helmet would be just as commercially viable as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Instead, Meantime stalled out at number 68 with only one charting single, the barely tuneful number 29 modern rock track, “Unsung.”
After the band's collective failure to meet expectations that were impossibly high, Mengede left the band. As a trio, Helmet recorded a track with House of Pain called “Just Another Victim” for the 1993 film Judgment Night. The soundtrack included many collaborations between rockers and rappers, such as Mudhoney's partnership with Sir Mix-a-Lot. The song, not merely as bad as one would guess, generated an even bigger buzz for the band and an excitement for their third album. Rob Echeverria was recruited as a replacement for Mengede once it came time to re-enter the studio.
In June 1994, Helmet unveiled Betty (Interscope), a fourteen-track opus that sought to outdo Meantime in every sense. The band, and Hamilton in particular, seemed sharper and more focused, even with the loftier ambitions at hand. The album itself was more densely layered and even more vicious in its sonic blitz. However, by many standards, it was not a better album than Meantime. The LP sounded over-labored at times, so much so that it was exhausting even to the listener. Simply put, it was not as fun, not as visceral, as its predecessor. Unfortunately, the charts reflected this back-stepping. Betty halted at number 45, and its only noteworthy single, “Milquetoast,” finished at 39. Echeverria was already gone when the band had to come up with their next move. As a stopgap, they released a B-sides collection called Born Annoying (1995, Interscope).
Without a replacement rhythm guitarist to anchor him, Hamilton played all of the guitar parts by himself in the sessions for the band's next studio effort, a set of songs that went back to the band's original start-stop, bone-crushing style. Unfortunately, Hamilton could no longer make such loud, punishing metal sound halfway fun or even very interesting, which made Aftertaste (1997, Epitaph) one of Helmet's most frustrating and disappointing listens. And yet, with “Exactly What You Wanted,” they achieved their highest position on the mainstream singles chart, peaking at 19. Hamilton brought Orange 9mm's Chad Traynor in as a rhythm guitarist for the promotional tour. Shortly afterward, Helmet broke up.
It was about seven years later that Helmet made their less-than-triumphant return. More accurately, the return was made by Hamilton, who brought Traynor with him yet again, but did not include Bogdan or Stainer. Instead, the one-time alt-metal visionary hired Rob Zombie's drummer, John Tempesta, and decided that all the bass and guitar parts could be handled by himself and Traynor for the recording of Size Matters. Released through Interscope in October 2005, the solid, but forgettable set peaked at 121. Bassist Frank Bello of Anthrax was hired for the tour, but left before it was finished. Jeremy Chatelain filled his shoes for the remainder of the tour.
Just one year later, Hamilton had a new Helmet album ready for release. No longer with Interscope after fifteen years, Hamilton pursued a contract with Warcon, a New York-based indie distributed through Fontana. Having reestablished his partnership with Wharton Tiers, who produced Strap it On and Meantime, Hamilton co-produced Monochrome (2006, Warcon/Fontana). It was nothing new, but simply added further proof that Hamilton, essentially a one-man show at that point (the album was recorded with Traynor and new drummer Mike Jost), could reliably churn out a set of satisfying hard-rock tunes, songs that wouldn't be remembered for long, but got the job done on an immediate and visceral level. Shortly after the album's arrival, Traynor and Jost departed from the group, and the lineup now consists of Hamilton, guitarist Dan Beeman, drummer Kyle Stevenson, and bassist Jon Fuller. This, of course, is subject to change.