Helmet are the musical chameleons of hard rock/metal.
Founding member, lead guitarist and vocalist Page Hamilton is the only part of Helmet’s music that has remained consistent since 1989, but it is because of his willingness to experiment that Helmet have proven impossible to lump into any one genre.
Without an album release since Dead To The World in 2016, Hamilton has taken his time crafting album number nine, Left, once more creating an album with the unmistakable DNA that is Helmet coursing through its veins, but also promising more subtle nuances with an acoustic track and string quartet featuring amongst the 11 songs.
Opening with the track Holiday, Helmet soon settle into groove with Hamilton running through a list of what sounds like things you don’t want to encounter on holidays. He sounds angry from the outset, despite the pleasant nature of the music.
It is already a guitar-heavy album, with the gravel-infused tones giving off an almost industrial edge which is kicked in the bollocks a couple of minutes in when a guitar solo shrieks without warning and upsets the status quo.
Helmet are masters of unconventional sonic disparities and this trend seems likely to continue just one track in.
Gun Fluf is next, opening with a wicked drum fill from Kyle Stevenson before Hamilton slides up to the microphone and works his magic.
His guitar work with rhythm guitarist Dan Beeman is already flawless, the two locking together tighter than Araldite.
This is more of a dreamy sort of tune, very suited for radio. It has a typically meaty hook which is sporadically offset by tempo changes done only as Helmet can do.
The track derails momentarily, following the chuggy guitarwork, ending in a wall of feedback that introduces NYC Tough Guy.
As the title suggests this song starts tough as fuck, a massive guitar riff setting the tone for a slower, more deliberate number that still oozes the aggressive niceties that one would expect.
This strikes me as a cool live song, especially when Hamilton launches into a tasty solo over the top of a tempered drum pattern that reaches its climax before casually dropping back into the earlier tone and feel of the song.
And then it’s over, ushering in Make-Up. A massive guitar riff greets our ears, repeating at different junctures to maximise effect.
This is another more measured track – and by that I mean not prone to eclectic and unexpected outbursts – but you can never be too sure.
Which Helmet seem to understand as the song ups the intensity casually, swirling and snapping urgently at its own heels with short, sharp outbursts of repression.
Another well-placed guitar solo brings Make-Up to a close before Big Shot makes a big impression with yet more tasty guitar riffs.
I said it earlier but shall say it again. Left is not just big on guitars, but MASSIVE. In a good way.
Big Shot is a stuttering example of the diversity of Helmet, at once a rock song but also a scintillating insight into how a rock song can undergo a metamorphosis within itself without losing focus.
While threatening to explode in any number of directions, Big Shot instead resists the temptation – and expectation – proving once more that Helmet are guided by their creative output more than that of expectation.
Bombastic promises something special and from the moment guitars ring in my left ear only, compounded by a building of sonic tension in the other, I know it will deliver.
The song pulsates with the grace of a commercial hit, but frequently regresses into radio self-destruct mode as Hamilton and co. place their emphasis more on the song than the larger audience.
Hamilton lets rip with possibly the best solo as yet on Left, but pulls back before overstaying his welcome, allowing his rhythm section room to breathe and violate the remainder of Bombastic. And violate it they do! With aplomb.
Reprise eases to life with a softer vocal intro over a calming ambiance that offers the first major surprise of the album.
It is a softer, dreamier affair with the occasional vocal strains fading into nothingness amid the restrained carnage going on around it and while it is a well-constructed addition to Left it also goes nowhere in its short running time, leaving a taste of almost unfinished business in its wake.
Which is maybe the point? Who knows with Helmet.
Dislocated picks things up again with a quick drum roll giving way to a refreshed Hamilton who slips straight back into gear vocally and on his guitar.
This track is definitely a vehicle for Stevenson to display his chops, with steady but firm drum patterns giving rise and fall to each section of the song.
I’m pretty sure there is a bit of slide guitar going on here too, with a bluesier underbelly providing the platform for several tirades of more rocking guitar work that effortlessly feed off each other with regular ease.
Tell Me Again starts with a cowboy-like guitar twang that gives way to an acoustic number complete with strings. Although essentially a ballad the combination of differing guitar tones and the addition of the string quartet elevates the song into a more ethereal plain. It is haunting and moody, painting a desolate landscape of loss and sorrow in keeping with its lyrics about getting out of a toxic relationship.
Powder Puff sounds like a kids TV show but is anything but as a haze of guitars introduces a cool and groovy number that is almost stop/start in its initial delivery.
Despite the bludgeoning guitars this song has more of a calming nature, building to a point which could go either way but more often than not choosing the path of least resistance.
Until Hamilton decides to insert yet another slab of guitar brilliance that lingers long enough to add starch to the moments of serenity and provide an accessible outlet to rockier ground.
Album closer Resolution starts with a soothing cowbell section before going all jazz on us – and beautifully so!
It is a completely unexpected but most assuredly welcome finale to Left, showcasing yet another sonic weapon in Helmet’s arsenal.
It steadily builds ascendancy and urgency but just before taking that final step snaps to a close, almost teasing at what could have been.
Is it a teaser of the direction of the next album from Helmet, or is it nothing more than the closing salvo from a band who take pride in adhering to only their own rules?
Time will tell, but until then Left will easily pass the time and most definitely fill the void.
*All reviews in HEAVY are just one person’s opinion of the album. We encourage honesty in reviews but just because our reviewer may or may not like/appreciate an album, that doesn’t mean their opinion is right! We encourage you to have a listen for yourself and make up your own minds!*