Helmet - Dead to the World (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


Dead to the World (2016)

E.A.R. Music

Most people who listened to heavy music in the early 90’s have a soft spot for Helmet. The only real question is whether they prefer the noisy near hardcore of Meantime (1992) or the noisy art-rock of Betty (1994). I’ve always been more in the Meantime and Strap It On (1990) camp, but I enjoyed Betty too. A quick trip through my record collection reminds me that I also bought Aftertaste (1997) and Size Matters (2004), and I even have a promo copy of Monochrome (2006). That fact that the only song I can remember from those three LP’s is the minor hit “Exactly What You Wanted” speaks volumes.

I’m not sure what prompted the impulse to pick up Helmet’s new album, Dead to the World. I hope I’m not being influenced by the recent wave of 90’s nostalgia. I must admit that era appeals much more to me than the current state of rock radio, but I hadn’t really thought much about Helmet for more than a decade. This is definitely a different Helmet. Only guitarist/vocalist/founder/main songwriter Page Hamilton remains from the 90’s version. The scene that they once heavily influenced has long since taken on a life of its own and left them in the dust. I’m sure that calling the record Dead to the World is an acknowledgement of this. You would assume that they intended it ironically, and that they’re out to prove that they’re still relevant. I’m afraid they fall short of that goal.

Rather than starting things off with a bold statement, they open with the bland “Life or Death”. (The closing track is a slower version of the same song.) It largely sets the stage for the dullness to follow. “Bad News”, “Green Shirt” and “Expect the World” are all exceptionally forgettable. Most of the songs are just OK. I would call “Die Alone” my favorite if I was forced to choose. The frustrating thing is that you can hear buried moments of genius. The guitar solo and riff under it from “Life or Death” are briefly awesome. Then it goes on too long and returns to the tedious chorus. The vocal rant at the end of “I (Heart) My Guru” is an awesome short blast of aggression. The guitar noise at the end of “Drunk in the Afternoon” almost takes us back to the glory days of Amphetamine Reptile Records. These moments are few and far between. There’s just far too much lackluster, generic 90’s alt-rock.

It seems to me that there are quite a few reasons for Helmet’s decline. First and foremost, the songs don’t feel very inspired. Hamilton’s later-era melodic singing is far less impressive than his early bark. The production has too much mainstream alt-rock polish. The thinking man’s metal band no longer has any rough edges. A rotating bunch of sidemen can’t adequately replace original drummer John Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan. They were able to provide the heaviness to counter Hamilton’s poppy songwriting tendencies. Other members can attempt to replicate the sound (especially that tight snare), but it just doesn't feel the same.

I’m afraid that Helmet’s first new album in six years isn’t going to do much to reestablish them as the juggernaut they once were. It brings me no joy to say this, as I would love for them to return to their former glory. When the original core trio split up in the late 90’s I believe it was quite acrimonious, but it’s been a long time guys. It might be time to bury the hatchet and make Helmet great again. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t horrible, but I can really only recommend Dead to the World to hardcore Helmet fans. The rest of you should just go listen to Meantime.