Helmet’s greatest-hits disc, Unsung: The Best of Helmet 1991-1997, put on display the band’s brilliantly calculated savagery and marked their place as a cornerstone in modern heavy music. But if you listen to Helmet, you know there is more to the band than the sonic fist. Aside from the brutality, there was a brilliant, high-impact emotional side that evolved as they perfected their craft. The use of melody that began on tracks such as “Wilma’s Rainbow” from 1994’s Betty added a Quicksand/Fugazi element to the band, which broke in 1992 with the battle-cry “Unsung.” Guitarist and founder Page Hamilton found he could sing well over the properly charged chord progressions. By the time Aftertaste came out in 1997, the angle had been fully developed. Songs such as “Like I Care” and “Broadcast Emotion” showed the band’s success at blending heartfelt emotion (often strained through cynicism, but genuine nonetheless) with that steel-toed assault they were previously known for.
Of course, I tell you this because Helmet is back — resurrected after a 1999 break-up — with a fifth full-length, Size Matters. Hamilton is rejoined by guitarist John Traynor and backed up with veterans Frank Bello (Anthrax) and John Tempesta (Testament, White Zombie, Rob Zombie). The band drives home the bittersweet, cynical hammer-hybrid with eleven songs that hit as hard as the band ever has, but they take the melodic enhancements even further. At some points there is nothing but a jagged rhythmical void over which Hamilton bares more of his voice and heart to his listeners than he has previously. Perhaps current incidents of recognition have left the man feeling bolder than ever. Good. He deserves it. They all do.
Make no mistake: This isn’t a way of talking around a softening of a heavy band. No. Indeed, Hamilton may even be angrier. “See You Dead” is a wonderfully bouncy example of how a person can wish death on another in a very matter-of-fact way. “Crashing Foreign Cars” is more of that releasing-the-frustrations-of-life-through-destruction kind of nuance that runs through his lyrics. Hamilton’s voice has acquired a certain dangerous rasp that was only ever-slightly there before, and he has switched off the safety on his words.
Those who like heavy music that stings with raw emotion finally have something new to listen to.