Sunday Old School: Helmet
Say what you like about the era of Generation X, there was some fantastic music around. We’ve already looked at a few of the bands popular at the time such as Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Living Colour, and this week we’ll be examining one of the most innovative bands of the era, Helmet. Helmet was formed in early 1989 by guitarist Page Hamilton, shortly after his departure from the New York based noise rock band, Band of Susans. Before long, they attracted the attention of US Marine, Tom Hazelmyer, who was also the founder of Amphetamine Reptile Records, who had previously put out records from the likes of Killdozer and soon signed Helmet to the label. Their first release for Amphetamine Reptile was the seven inch single, "Born Annoying," which was followed the next year by their full length debut, "Strap It On." The album was very well received by listeners and is now regarded as a classic by fans of post-hardcore music, as well as becoming a small influence in metal, as evidenced when Deftones covered the song, "Sinatra" years later. Critics were also very welcoming of the debut, praising its atmospheric approach and distinctive riffs.
A year after the release of, "Strap It On," Helmet signed a new deal with major label, Interscope, who reportedly paid the group one million dollars for their next album. They began recording the album, which was to be entitled, "Meantime" in late 1991 and eventually released it the next summer. The time and (alleged) budget proved to be well worth the effort, as "Meantime" broke the band into the mainstream, peaking at number 68 on the Billboard Charts and becoming their first (and only) Gold Record in the United States, thanks largely to the success of the title track and the song, "Unsung." Once again, they had also put out a record which was adored by many critics, several of which gave the album perfect scores. The success of "Meantime" meant a much bigger increase in tour dates and soon the band found themselves performing in Europe, Asia and South America, as well as their native, United States. The heavy touring schedule, coupled with the new found spotlight brought problems to the band and strengthened internal tensions, eventually leading guitarist Peter Mengede to quit the group, with Rest In Pieces guitarist, Rob Echeverria taking his place.
Critics and fans alike were eagerly awaiting the next release from the band, which finally came in June 1994 under the peculiar title, "Betty." The album was another darling in the eyes of the music press and was able to climb to number 45 in the United States, as well as enter the top twenty in Sweden and Austria. Although the record became their highest charting in the United States to date, it failed to reach the sales figures set by "Meantime," despite the inclusion of the song, "Milquetoast" on the soundtrack to the high profile movie, "The Crow" (alongside the likes of Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots and The Cure) a few months before. After touring in support of the album, Echeverria left the band in order to join New York hardcore outfit, Biohazard and Helmet decided to continue life as a three piece. They released their first record as a trio, "Aftertaste" in 1997, which featured a sound more akin to their earlier work than the experimentation shown on "Betty." The record spawned a minor hit in, "Exactly What You Wanted" and was unable to reach number 47 on the Billboard Charts but was not a particularly strong seller and received a very mixed response from music critics. These disappointments, along with a number of private problems, caused the band to split up in 1998.
Following the dissolution of Helmet, the members all went on to new pursuits, with Hamilton even having a stint as the guitarist for British glam god, David Bowie. In 2004, he was working on a new project with former Testament and White Zombie drummer John Tempesta and while in search of a name and a label for the group, Interscope employee Jimmy Iovine encouraged Hamilton to revive the Helmet name, which the label held the rights to. After failing to convince original members Henry Bogdan and John Stanier to return to the group, he decided he would go ahead with the Helmet revival as the sole founding member, though new guitarist Chris Traynor has previously spent time with the band as a touring member when the group were supporting the release of "Aftertaste." This new incarnation of Helmet recorded a new album, "Size Matters" a trio, but quickly brought in bass player Frank Bello, who had just left thrash metal legends, Anthrax after twenty years, so that Traynor could focus on playing guitar. Bello wouldn’t stay long, returning to Anthrax the next year to take part in their "Among The Living" reunion, and the band hired former Jets To Brazil bass player, Jeremy Chatelain to take his place. Tempesta would also leave the group a little while later to join The Cult and his place behind the kit was eventually taken by former Seven skinsman, Mike Jost.
Unable to keep a hold of Chatelain, the band, who had by now parted company with Interscope, once again recorded their next album as a trio, with Traynor again handling the bass duties. The album was released in July 2006 under the title, "Monochrome" and the album soon gained some attention thanks to the title track playing over the end credits of the horror movie, "Saw III." Chatelain returned to Helmet as a touring bass player as the band headlined that year’s edition of the Warped Tour amongst other appearances. In September 2006 however, the band was dealt one blow after another, as Traynor announced he was quitting the band, with Jost leaving merely days later, forcing the group to cancel many planned concerts, though they were able to find new members in time to finish the year off opening for Guns N Roses.
They performed sporadically for a while, including an Australian tour in 2008 and a number of festival appearances, including a marquee headlining slot at Belgium’s Graspop Metal Meeting. Eventually, with Traynor on bass and new additions Dan Beeman on guitar and Kyle Stevenson on drums, Helmet were able to record a new album, "Seeing Eye Dog," which was released in 2010 to mixed reviews and came with a bonus live album. Most recently, the band celebrated their legacy by performing a series of shows in Europe where they played “Meantime” in its entirety. Where they go from here remains to be seen, but some suspect their next record will be their last after Hamilton stated he could see two more records after “Monochrome,” citing the physical demands as his primary reason. Regardless of what the future holds, the band have certainly left their mark in the realm of rock music, writing some of the most critically acclaimed tunes of the nineties and never being anything but themselves in the process.
Helmet - "Bad Mood"
Helmet - "Unsung"
Helmet and House Of Pain - "Just Another Victim"
Helmet - "Milquetoast"
Helmet - "Exactly What You Wanted"
Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.
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