It's hard being a Helmet fan: these days the band's career trajectory bares a stark similarity to that of a gifted athlete, with all the admiration, awe and ultimate disappointment that this entails. Stay with me now...
Young phenom enters the game and right from the off you can tell you're gazing at raw, unfiltered talent; here is a player with the potential to not only be one of the greats, but to redefine the way the game is played (Strap It On). Shortly after this, the player reaches his peak, and what follows is breathtaking and magnificent; the talent gleams, the maturity shows and the player's efforts become the stuff of legend (Meantime). Then something happens - perhaps an injury - and the player becomes erratic. He's still capable of the odd spark of brilliance (Betty), but generally speaking he's on a downward slope and everyone knows it. Finally, the player bows out of the game - he's nowhere near as good as he used to be (Aftertaste), but his last efforts are still head and shoulders above many of his peers and so he's able to end it all on something of a high note...
...and then he comes back after a seven-year hiatus and embarrasses himself by trying to keep up the current crop of players by turning in an uninspired and turgid performance (Size Matters).
Two years on, and Helmet's singer/guitarist/drill-sergeant Page Hamilton is giving it another go with Monochrome. For this, Hamilton has recruited long-time Helmet comrade, Chris Traynor, and Mike Jost on drums. He's also hooked up with Wharton Tiers who was the engineer on the band's first two albums - a fact that sits nicely with all the back-to-basics-return-to-form press swirling around the release date. The good news is the end result is better than Size Matters. The bad news is that it's still not within firing range of Helmet's 90s output.
The problem lies in that, with regards to many of the song structures and riffage, Helmet (along with the rest of us) have been here before. One of the main reasons Size Matters fell flat on its face is because the components that make up the bludgeoning sound that Helmet shot to prominence with, have pretty much become commonplace in metal. The drop-tuned guitars, jazz-like time signatures, staccato riffs and stop-and-start rhythms, that seemed so groundbreaking in the early Nineties, had gone from being standard issue to old hat by 2004.
So while there's thrills to be had in the brutal onslaught of a track like '410', the song doesn't sound that far away from 100 or so other bands, who you wouldn't give the time of day to if they weren't called Helmet. Tiers' production doesn't help either - stripping away any ounce of studio veneer is great for the guitars, but it makes Jost's drums sound positively anorexic at times.
Monochrome also suffers in part from attempts by Hamilton to make melodies feature more prominently in the mix. On the whole, this stab at expanding Helmet's sound doesn't really sit well with the band's primary strength - that they're basically the sonic equivalent of a battering ram that efficiently flattens whatever happens to be in front of it. When it works - as on 'Moneyshot' - it makes for compelling listening (even if the track did sound better when it was orginally recorded with Gandhi). When it doesn't, it sounds like Helmet trying their collective hand at a power ballad - as evidenced by the title track. Elsewhere, Hamilton seems to run out of ideas and starts pilfering from his own back catalogue; two of the biggest offenders are 'Brand New', which bolts the verses of 'Turned Out' together with the chorus of 'Crisis King', and 'Gone', which is as close an approximation of 'Unsung' as your likely to get without actually copying the song note for note.
Hamilton's singing has taken a bit of a nosedive too. Granted, vocals and lyrics were never really Helmet's selling point, but in the past Hamilton's two-track approach of either an authoritative drone or a visceral scream complimented his songs brilliantly. On Monochrome, he ratchets his voice down into a nasal-inflected snarl, and placed as prominently as it is in the mix, it calls attention to his spartan lyrical approach – which doesn't do the band any favours. He's best served when the music's ferocity (as in On Your Way Down) elbows his delivery into the background.
Despite all this, there are reasons to be optimistic. For all its faults, Monochrome is an improvement on Size Matters and Hamilton remains a pretty tight guitarist. His fretwork is still wicked cool, and when he's given the opportunity to let the throttle out the results are stunning. It's also worth remembering that musical talent - unlike athletic prowess - isn't something that's always destroyed by the aging process. Not only that, but artists who've lost the plot can sometimes rediscover the dialogue with their inner muse and grab a second-wind late in their careers. It's rare, but it happens.
With Monochrome, Hamilton seems to have realised that stepping away from the majors and their requisite studio production sludge can only be a good thing. Now, if he can find a new direction to blaze in rather than re-tread thrice-covered ground, he may be on to something. Fingers crossed...
5Nick Cowen's Score