The simple fact that the AU Review did not immediately attract a number of requests to review tonight’s gig at the Manning Bar on the campus of Sydney Uni is evidence of the sad fate that seems to have befallen NYC’s mighty Helmet. Initially only signed up to shoot the show, this scribe got roped in at the last minute to write up the review as well. I can’t say I really mind; Helmet was a life changing band and retains a very soft spot in the old blood pumper to this day.
See, for anyone aged 30 or older, Helmet marked a huge shift in the music scene and offered listeners an intelligent, stripped down and muscular alternative to both hair metal and the emerging dirge of grunge. Their breakthrough album, Meantime, captured the attentions of countless teens and 20-somethings when it launched in 1992. Not their first album, Meantime – and its follow-up Betty – is certainly known and loved as representing the band’s defining sound. Meantime went gold in the US and landed at number one on the Heatseaker chart.
Earlier the term ‘sadly’ was used when we admitted that no one had put their hand up to review the show. This is because to this writer, it seems that the current generation of music fans have somehow not been educated as to the important role Helmet has played in heavy music. It’s nigh on impossible to listen to any band that plays anything even remotely heavy these days that hasn’t in some way been influenced by Page Hamilton and co.
Yet, here we are in 2011 and Helmet is playing the relatively small Manning Bar. At the very least, a band of its stature should be filling the Metro. Tonight’s show marked the band’s first time touring here in three years when the group played the Meantime album in its entirety. It’d been double that time since I’d seen them live.
Opening for Helmet were Pangaea: a group that is equally synonymous with the 1990s. The Australian group – hailing from Brisbane – boasts a line-up of members that have earned credits on record sleeves including Wolfmother, Regurgitator, Resin Dogs, George and more. Considering their last release was back in 1997, we’re not sure how or why the trio came to be on the Helmet tour, suffice it to say that their set was raucous, tight and groovy.
Their sound is still very ‘90s, with singer Ben Ely even referencing Sepultura at one point during their set. Drummer Dave Atkins was on fire tonight, holding down an infectious groove and playing with aplomb as his sweaty hair flailed, beer gut protruded and at the end of the gig, hairy crack displayed. Their sound was an intriguing mix of solid, simple grooves and surprising instrumental dexterity. Perhaps it was this incongruence that landed them on the tour with Helmet – a band long known for their deceptively simple sound.
Yet, no matter how enjoyable Pangaea was, it was really Helmet that every last 30-something in the room was there to see – even though on paper Helmet of 2011 is more like ‘Page Hamilton and Band’. Luckily for us, it’s nothing like the situation with Guns n Roses. Or should we say, ‘Axl Rose and Band’.
Besides founding member Page Hamilton, Helmet has been home to no less than 14 different musicians and the newest line-up seems to be the youngest to date. They’re so fresh they don’t even have Wikipedia pages! Despite this, their sound tonight is devastating. The diminutive size of the Manning Bar is the perfect place to witness a band like Helmet. Their tight, staccato riffage doesn’t have the space to get messed up by a venue’s sonic dynamic and the room full of bodies does well to soak up any unwanted resonance.
Tonight’s set list takes tracks from all over their now-expansive discography. While the song titles being screamed at Page from the audience all night point toward an urgent desire to hear the ‘hits’, he stands firm and delivers a breathtaking set that’s measured and confident. It’s not until the encore that he caves and plays what the audience demands. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Standing behind the mosh barrier, camera in hand; I immediately notice the absence of Page’s iconic magenta ESP Horizon guitar. I figure it has finally given up the ghost or maybe he’s just not feeling its mojo at the moment. For a fan such as me, it’s a shame not to see it up close and personal. It’s three songs before Page lets up the intensity long enough to enter into some witty banter with the crowd. We’re told that original guitarist and Australian native Peter Mengede was on hand at the Brisbane gig, even getting up on stage with the band. It was the first time he and Page had seen one another in 17 years.
The mix is clear tonight and the guitars are low gain, but wonderfully gravelly. This is a departure from the classic Helmet recorded guitar sound that is more distorted and high gain. Even Page has a little trouble at times conjuring up his beloved feedback during extended solo sections where he manipulates his sound through clever sleight of hand on his guitar or by twiddling knobs on his pedal board.
New bassist Dave Case rocks out in front of his Ampeg stack, complete with baseball cap and G&L bass; quite like original bass player Henry Bogdan. Similarly, guitarist Dan Beeman is playing a Les Paul similar to the one Peter Mengede could be seen playing in the "Unsung" video. I’m left wondering if there was some kind of cosmic coincidence in the similarities or if I’m just a victim of some wishful thinking. There’s no getting past my sense of jealousy at Dan’s position as guitarist when I can play most of their songs note for note, having spent countless hours in front of my tape deck as a teen learning all the songs by ear.
Listening to the apeshit applause that greets any track from Meantime or Betty, there’s no doubting they’re tracks the audience want to hear most. You can feel the kick drum and the bass pumping into your chest. When the band collectively hit an open dropped D chord the entire venue reverberates like a glorious massage chair and the sound sinks into each and every person there. What an experience!
"Unsung" immediately transports me back to the early 1990s and memories of watching the video clip on VHS over and over until it stretched out and became unwatchable. Even today, Page still rocks back and forth as he feels the groove just like he did back then. We’re told that he’s 51 years old now which surely makes him the coolest 51-year-old out there.
Toward the end of the main set, Page informs us all that “we’re dedicating the rest of the set to the band Phish” and that “we’re just gonna improvise for the rest of the night to the Am chord”. No doubt this went over more than a few heads, but "Rollo" – from Betty - certainly didn’t. Despite the track’s odd time signature, the band remains tight and focused.
Helmet has the ability to make grown men lose their shit - even today some 15 years after their initial and primary impact. They end with "Milquetoast" off the Betty album – and The Crow sound track - to rousing applause as the same one guy keeps getting passed over the mosh barrier in varying stages of undress.
After a short break, the band returns for a thoroughly expected encore. However, I don’t think the crowd is aware of just how awesome this four-song stretch will be. Page starts by asking the crowd what they want to hear and after a few minutes of banter they launch into a rousing rendition of "FBLA" from the Strap It On album. Not even I knew before tonight that "FBLA" stood for ‘Future Business Leaders of America’.
It made sense then that the band strode right into "FBLA II" from Meantime. After this, Page himself decided he wanted to play "I Know" from Betty which sounded absolutely huge. Finally, the band broke into "Meantime" without much ado, sending everyone in the room completely bonkers in what was a totally fitting end to a freakin’ sweet night.
For an artist with such a history and such an important place in music history, it’s incredibly humbling to find that Page Hamilton is such an affable, approachable guy. In addition to introducing his new band to the crowd, he also went to the trouble of introducing his crew at the end of the set, before barely taking a break at the end of the show to get down and do an impromptu meet-n-greet with the audience. What a legend.
See You Dead
Photo credit: Shiloh Strong