[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
If you didn't go see the film Singles, then you've been naughty and are just asking to be spanked with a cricket bat or maybe one of those très butch rooster-tail rear fenders I've been idly thinking of installing on the bike that loyal Queer in Your Ear readers know I bought over the summer. In Singles, we have Matt Dillon as the skanky focal point of a band not unlike those lousy Seattle groups we've been subjected to for the past year. We also have Campbell Scott, with his trademark short-back-and-sides hairdo and velvety, fingertip-inviting complexion, as a pseudo-Generation Xer trying to make Seattle a more friendly place for public transit.
So Matt Dillon is the rebel and Campbell Scott is the square – and I don't mean his jawline, which was so nearly rectilinear in Longtime Companion you could notch a T-square against it. Or do appearances perhaps deceive? We later learn that Dillon is a near-talentless, vapid poseur, while in his college days Scott was a DJ who did kray-zee things with impromptu Public Enemy remixes. In the film's present day, a careful arrangement of props in one shot reveals Scott to be so fabulous as to own the Smithereens' 1986 album Especially for You – on vinyl, no less.
Moral of the story? Don't judge a book by its cover.
How, then, to judge Helmet, the cleanest-cut metal quartet in the whole wide world, the Campbell Scotts of heavy metal? Things go up and down for these New Yorkers. After only one indie record (Strap It On, 1990), Helmet got eaten up by the Time-Warner conglomerate/nation-state for over a million bucks, yet singer/guitarist Page Hamilton (even his name is pretty) has said the boys still don't have enough cash to give up their day jobs. The industrial and graphic design of their album Meantime are simply magnificent, but the music is dissonant, overwrought, unsuited to banging your head. They made an insipid video ("In the Meantime") and a beautiful, guyish, sexy one ("Unsung," shot in a lovely old warehouse with now-flickering, now-constant shafts of light making Hamilton look even more strait-laced than he is). But in December  they smashed up their tour bus, knocking themselves off a tour opening for the G. Gordon Liddys of popular music, Ministry.
Think for a moment of conventional heavy metal. Even if you hate it, you have to admit it's got rhythm; it's just fast, loud rhythm, which some fans pay good money for in rap and dance as well as metal. Helmet, on the other hand, traffics in bass more than basslines. Rhythm is sacrificed to syncopation, making much of the music sound like continuous bass guitar with arty, off-kilter drums overlaid.
There is, of all things, an element of jazz in this, particularly when you consider Hamilton's adoration of John Coltrane. Betraying the jazz influence are Hamilton's antiphonious vocal delivery, which comprises a kind of screaming and growling almost in the death-metal style, and portentous lyrics vaguely exploring angst and the trials of art-directed New York City existence without quite achieving poetic felicity. (This is a band that uses the word "archetypal" but mispronounces it. It also rhymes "help" with "health." I'm sure it all falls into place if you're on the right drugs.)
Such is the Helmet duality: Look one way, sound another. Like much of Madonna's oeuvre, Helmet is readily analyzable even if the result of the analysis isn't profound or remarkable. This kind of analyzability is what separates pop-music wheat from chaff, but at the moment, I regret to say that Helmet is easier to like as an idea than as a musical group. But they're still young, these kids, and they're doing just fine for a second album. If they put their minds to it (and maybe take driving lessons), Helmet might succeed in its mission of fusing jazz and metal motifs and offer a pleasure of the text unaccustomed in their bone-crushing circles.