By Daniel Kohn
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Helmet doesn't really do much to dissuade the superfans and supernerds. The hybrid style they pieced together like so many sonic Duplo bricks appeals to metalheads who are over the fact that Helmet leader Page Hamilton looks like Jack Johnson, hardcore kids who can also skank to complex song structures, and noise aficionados who sense the band's deliberately fucked-up time and key signatures. Hamilton's working history with composer Glenn Branca during the avant-garde incubation period of 1980s New York is fascinating, as is his employment of producer/Sonic Youth buddy Wharton Tiers. He's also the kind of gear fetishist who contemplates reverb styles as though they were fine wines. And, of course, the convoluted band history of Helmet inspires a new wave of rock archivists, and anyone tracing that curious path from Minor Threat to Crazytown.
As such, it's somewhat surprising but definitely encouraging that, amid the terrible post-punk and emo currently thrilling the stadium crowds, Helmet was picked to headline the Vans Warped Tour last summer. Musically, they're boss: the most recent album, Monochrome, is an undisguised echo of the early and beloved days of Helmet, before sundry lineup changes and side projects shook the band apart.
Hamilton, the only original member, re-formed his band and recently signed with Warcon after years with mega-label Interscope, who were smart enough to nab Helmet early, after the small imprint AmRep released a righteous collection of random songs in 1989 on the hallmark 7" Born Annoying. While it's always been unquestionably Hamilton's project, the apparent bad blood that runs through Helmet's history is more disturbing than the fact that Hamilton once dated Winona Ryder. More often than not, the average rock band has one distinct face and three or four blurrier (and usually fatter) guys in the background, but when a band is as sonically astute as Helmet has managed to be, the individual parts matter more than those in a songwriter-based outfit. What, then, to make of Hamilton, who has overseen the comings and goings of no less than 10 co-conspirators?
Cranky though he appears to be (coming off like something of a shithead in interviews), Hamilton is a compelling and abruptly charismatic personality. His ego is everywhere in the music—even if he did agree to open for the pathetically fading Guns N' Roses this year, a move that might cause a certain cardigan-clad contemporary of Hamilton's to bury his pretty blond head in some snowbank in rock & roll heaven. Still, Helmet is Hamilton, so it is precisely this sort of contradiction that fuels the often excellent bedlam of the band.