For most of the last six years, Page Hamilton, the frontman of angular '90s alt-metal band Helmet, has watched from the sidelines while groups like Korn and Chevelle became nü-metal MVPs with plays largely borrowed from Helmet.
That in itself didn't upset Hamilton, who was busy touring with David Bowie behind his Hours album and playing as a session musician for film scores, including "S.W.A.T.," "The Good Thief," "In Dreams" and "Titus." In addition, Hamilton worked with ex-Nine Inch Nails drummer Charlie Clouser and produced songs for ex-Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale. But when he turned on the radio, from time to time Hamilton did learn something from the new metal breed: No matter how much hip-hop and pop continue to dominate the charts, there will always be a place for gut-busting rock.
In 2002, the Helmet manufacturer decided it was time once again to destroy, so he formed the electronic-embellished hard rockers Gandhi, but it soon became apparent that the group was a mere shadow of what Hamilton really wanted to do. So he called two former Helmet bandmates, but neither was interested. Bassist Henry Bogdan now lives in Hawaii and no longer likes it loud, and drummer John Stanier is busy in Tomahawk and Battles.
Determined not to give up, Hamilton recruited Chris Traynor (who played guitar on the last Helmet tour) to play bass, and started setting the stage for Helmet's long-awaited reanimation. Shortly after Christmas 2002, he met ex-White Zombie drummer John Tempesta, whose solid, steady groove melds well with Hamilton's churning, repetitive rhythms, and the trio began writing Size Matters. Traynor will switch to guitar, and Frank Bello (ex-Anthrax) will play bass on the band's upcoming tour.
In many ways, the new album continues the band's vital, visceral legacy. The songs are filled with jagged, down-tuned riffing, syncopated drumming and acerbic lyrics about people that piss Hamilton off and women that have done him wrong. However, instead of pummeling from start to finish, the tracks are balanced by previously unexplored vocal and cinematic textures he probably learned while working on movie scores.
Many of the songs feature layers of disparate, textured guitar passages that clash almost as often as they complement each other. Combined with Hamilton's new emphasis on vocal melody, Size Matters is the most musically developed Hemet record for sure, but it sometimes sacrifices primal power in the quest for sonic growth. The results occasionally sound similar to some of the groups Helmet once influenced. The pre-chorus on "Smart" could be A Perfect Circle, and the claustrophobic rhythm on "Drug Lord" is reminiscent of Chevelle.
Fortunately, these low points are balanced by teeth-gritting creativity. "Everybody Loves You" combines a granite-solid riff with melting, wobbling guitars redolent of My Bloody Valentine and features a break suffused with clanking percussion, throbbing bass and a feedback-laced solo. And "See You Dead" starts with a mesmerizing one-chord rhythm, then busts into a hook-filled chorus and some of Hamilton's most unsettling lyrics: "I could miss you more right now, or I could slit your throat/ Sometimes I get so down you're not around, I'd rather see you dead."
Instead of just resurrecting Helmet, Hamilton has taught the beast some new tricks that invigorate its music. Old-school fans might be bummed by the band's more tuneful direction, but there's still plenty of crash, crunch and wallop to keep open-minded listeners banging away.