Helmet – Size Matters Review

Helmet – Size Matters
Interscope, 2004

1. Smart
2. Crashing Foreign Cars
3. See You Dead
4. Drug Lord
5. Enemies
6. Unwound
7. Everybody Loves You
8. Surgery
9. Speak and Spell
10. Throwing Punches
11. Last Breath

1997 was the last year that the music world received a new outing from Helmet. Even then, Aftertaste did little to remind their fanbase of the reasons why Helmet was once a cutting-edge influence to many modern bands including Korn and the Deftones. Debuting in 1991 and truly kicking it up a notch in 1992, Helmet capitalized on the popular grunge sound of the day while integrating everything from jazz to punk to psychedelica with downtuned guitars and unapologetic creative meanderings. Remaining primarily underground, it’s clear the impact their music had on the modern scene as traces of their trademarks turn up daily on top-40 rock stations across the country.

While officially disbanding in 1999, band frontman and founder Page Hamilton spent the last couple of years planting the seeds of a new Helmet outing by contributing to the soundtrack to Underworld and feeding singles through the Helmet website to garner interest. Certainly not a reunion in the least, Hamilton recruited Frank Bello (ex-Anthrax) on bass and John Tempesta (White Zombie/Rob Zombie) on drums, along with former guitarist Chris Traynor for the 2004 lineup. In short, the new Helmet is purely a Hamilton creation. While one may take comfort in the most familiar face holding the reigns, it’s interesting how much of his original vision for Helmet was lost with Size Matters.

There is absolutely no doubt that Size Matters is a solid album; the primary question is, how even can an album be without overcoming itself with blandness? Similar to issues faced with forefather-type bands like Metallica, there will always be a constant comparison to days of old when a new disc hits the shelves. When an older fan thinks Helmet, they’re not expecting to hear track after track of songs that fall into a radio-ready and conformist architecture; they remember the first time they heard “Unsung” or “In The Meantime” and want to be reminded of that moment. And while Size Matters would be classified as a strong effort by a new or untested band in today’s marketplace, it’s just not up to par with what the world knows is capable at the hands of Helmet.

Kicking off the disc with “Smart,” it seems unlikely that one would be disappointed with this release at all. While Hamilton’s vocals are cleaned up from what they once were (a trend started back in ’97), they seem to truly be aimed towards a mass audience this time out. “Crashing Foreign Cars” similarly begins in a raucous vein but manages to keep up the energy throughout; unfortunately, too many of the songs on the disc tend to fall into a verse-chorus-verse generic format that evokes images of generic “nu-metal” clones throughout the current scene and rendering Helmet as just another in a sea of mediocrity.

Even lacking the innovation they once heralded, there are many strong tunes throughout that, if taken without measuring against their history, make a good showing. “See You Dead” automatically catches the ears and tends to stick there mercilessly; “Unwound” comes off as deliberately catering to a radio-friendly audience, but is a great song nonetheless. The searing guitar riff flowing througout the verses of “Everybody Loves You” is less than standard and makes for a nice contrast from some of the other easily-blended melodies rampant on the disc, and “Last Breath” wraps up the album with one of the least predictable (although somewhat out-of-place) guitar solos that hearkens back to the true roots of Helmet.

But it’s the problems with the disc that also make it good; while one may claim that there is a consistent format issue a la Nickelback where lack of variation prevents the listener from discerning one track from the next, Hamilton does a fantastic song crafting songs within that format. Each song in itself is, for the most part, well-written and easy on the ears. Some are a bit edgier, some are a bit mellower, but there’s not a hair out of place. Enjoyed on the whole as an album, it becomes monotonous quickly. As singles, the songs shine as nice little pop-influenced fuzzy gems of rock.

Still, this is supposed to be a Helmet album. In that regard, it disappoints easily. The vocals are familiar and the wry lyrics are abound, but it almost seems like a last cry for fame on the part of Page Hamilton. It’s almost a disgusting formula that has been exploited by several formerly innovative bands: take the sound that made them famous, but soften the song structures to appeal to the masses. Will Helmet get anything above and beyond their underground following to drink their Kool-Aid? Time will tell, but if not, they just might lose that long-time following with this jump to the poppier side of the fence.