ow the mighty have fallen! Helmet, one of the most influential rock bands of the '90s, has been sliding downhill since 1994's Betty. Tellingly, the band's new album is touted as a return to roots. Monochrome is co-produced by Wharton Tiers, who helmed Helmet's best moments, its first two albums. Flashes do appear of the old Helmet, the seething outfit that lit up New York's noise rock scene. However, it may be too little, too late. Monochrome's last song is unwittingly accurate: "So long / Goodbye / It might be time to say goodbye."
Helmet has traveled a long, strange path. Singer/guitarist Page Hamilton moved from Oregon to New York to study jazz guitar, but fell in with New York's avant-garde noise underground, working with Band of Susans and Glenn Branca before forming Helmet. Drummer John Stanier, bassist Henry Bogdan, and guitarist Peter Mengede rounded out the lineup for Strap It On and Meantime. Raw and dissonant, Strap It On was prime early '90s noise rock as typified by labels like Amphetamine Reptile and Touch and Go. The album lured major labels seeking the next Nirvana, and Helmet signed to Interscope for Meantime. With the massive "Unsung" and "In the Meantime," the album established Helmet's trademarks—Hamilton's barked vocals and atonal solos, Stanier and Bogdan's sharp rhythm section, and staccato, monolithic riffs.
Rob Echeverria replaced Mengede for Betty, which explored alternative tunings, more melody, and more sonic colors. The album had strong songs, but was unfocused, and now sadly (and undeservedly) fills bargain bins. Echeverria left, and Hamilton took over all guitar parts for 1997's Aftertaste. The album skewed further towards melody and lost much of Helmet's edge. The band then broke up, with Hamilton surfacing occasionally on soundtracks and other artists' albums. Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine convinced Hamilton to resurrect Helmet for 2004's Size Matters. Trouble was, none of the other original members were on board. The album was a big, shiny failure, with huge production, whiny lyrics, and overly melodic vocals. Monochrome finds Helmet with a new label, yet another lineup of hired guns, but press that says the old Helmet is back.
Well, it isn't. It can't, because the other original members aren't present. Hamilton always did most of Helmet's songwriting, but the playing chemistry of the old lineup was undeniable. Mike Jost admirably evokes Stanier's lively yet precise drumming, but ultimately Monochrome sounds like what it is: a studio creation. For the most part, songs lumber along with little forward motion. Hamilton's voice is the greatest liability here. Frankly, he sounds tired. His voice used to be thick and assertive, drawing comparisons to Ozzy Osbourne. Now his vocals are thin and ragged; "Swallowing Everything," "Bury Me," and "Money Shot" are painful to hear, as Hamilton's vocals strain to rise above the guitars.
This is a shame, as this album has some of his most inspired guitar work in ages (with the exception of "Howl," a throwaway minute of guitar noises). Back in the day, Helmet excelled at layering complex, higher chords on top of basic, muscular riffs. Hamilton has revived that aspect with rich, dissonant voicings that crackle from the speakers, especially on "Gone." "Brand New" even has eerie clean tones, which are rare for Helmet. The songs don't hit hard, though. They're well-constructed and generally concise, but they lack the urgency and oomph that built Helmet's name. The vocal harmonies on "Goodbye" are surprisingly effective, suggesting that perhaps another singer could do these songs justice. But that wouldn't be Helmet, would it? Too metal for grunge and too noisy for "alternative," Helmet has always been out of step with its times. But now that even its main descendent (nu-metal) is out of fashion, Helmet may just need to say goodbye for real.