Inexhaustible Possibilities: Helmet, October 8 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 29 September 2011 07:20

Helmet. Photo by Shiloh Strong.

In the course of a phone interview last week, Page Hamilton – lead guitarist, singer, and composer for Helmet, performing on October 8 at RIBCO – dropped the names of Beethoven, John Williams, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

That collection gives a good sense of the breadth of Hamilton’s musical study and knowledge, and some indication of why his band rewards close listening. It also hints at why Hamilton’s rigorous heavy music has found only modest commercial success, with one gold album (1992’s Meantime) and only top-50 peak chart positions in the United States.

What’s important to understand is that while there’s an essential academic/philosophical component to Helmet’s music, the band has also been distinguished by an uncompromising pummeling force, what the All Music Guide described as a “very precise and diabolical din – full of martial barks, jackhammering drums, rumbling bass, and some of the most brilliant IQ-lowering guitar riffs since Black Sabbath’s first four albums.” Hamilton rejects the assertion that Helmet is simply a metal band, but it operates almost exclusively in an aggressively gritty guitar/bass/drum framework. Within that structure and self-imposed limitations, Hamilton explores musical theory.

“The Helmet vocabulary is the drop-tuning, the chord voicing, and the figure writing, or riff writing,” he said. (There are also players employing different time signatures, a technique borrowed from composer Glenn Branca that Hamilton said creates “this sort of forward propulsion.”) “It’s thematic writing. It’s the same approach a jazz improviser would use, or a classical composer.” He then mimicked the openings of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and John Williams’ title-crawl theme for Star Wars, and discussed how they quickly establish themes that are then developed. “That’s my approach to writing. I’m not stringing a bunch of shit together – the drummer came up with this, and I came up with that. That can work, but I think eventually you run out of ideas. We’re all using the same 12 notes in Western music.”

If that makes your eyes glaze, it must also be noted that Hamilton’s solos – which he said he approaches like a “spaz jazz idiot” – are razor-wire sharp and exhilarating, regardless of a listener’s music-theory understanding.

The All Music Guide called Meantime “arguably one of the most influential and overlooked rock records of the ’90s,” saying that it “threw the rule book out the window. ... Helmet’s bludgeoning riffs combined with their stop-go-stop-go minimalist attack changed the face of aggro-rock.”

Alas, the band’s three albums since Hamilton re-formed Helmet in 2004 (following its 1998 breakup) haven’t gotten much critical love, and there’s even been some derision. “Points deducted for inventing nü metal – still more for songs that won’t let an audience forget it,” Spin wrote dismissively of 2010’s Seeing Eye Dog.

Certainly, fans of Helmet’s first incarnation might cringe at the album’s freer style, particularly the acquired-taste Beatles cover “And Your Bird Can Sing” and the toying-with-pretty “L.A. Water.” Yet overall the experimentation works, especially “Morphing,” an atmospheric tune that seems drawn from Hamilton’s regular work performing on Elliot Goldenthal’s soundtracks.

And there are still plenty of songs in the core Helmet style, albeit with greater attention paid to Hamilton’s vocals. The record closes with the concise “Miserable” and the dynamic “She’s Lost,” the former updating the classic Helmet form of its early-’90s commercial peak and the latter employing it in an airier, more elastic composition that seems to chart a path forward.

These reflect Hamilton’s assertion that over the years the band has expanded the vocabulary it established on its early albums. One way to think of Helmet is as a series of musical problems to solve – a concept Hamilton learned from heroes (and jazz guitarists) Howard Roberts and Garry Hagberg.

“The benefit of practicing and working and studying and being obsessed with music for my entire adult life is that I probably have a larger bucket of solutions than somebody that just loves the Ramones and PIL,” Hamilton said. “That takes nothing away from those bands, ’cause I love both those bands, but ... I’m not trying to write a three-chord rock song unless I’m trying to write a three-chord rock song.”

He’s done better than that, minimalistically speaking. “There are Helmet songs that are based on one note,” he said. “‘In the Meantime’ is one chord – root-five octave open-string power chord that’s about a rhythmic groove. ... I just let that sort of naturally go where it felt like it wanted to go. Those little stutters were ways to keep it from it turning into a Philip Glass thing where you get lost. Not the listener so much as me. And it felt right. If something feels right, I go with it.”

That’s the instinctive part of Hamilton’s method, rooted in his understanding of theory but not a slave to it. “When I write the song, I’m not thinking about anything,” he said. “I’m not thinking about music theory or whatever. I’m listening. ... Every note has a tendency to want to move somewhere, And I think on any given day it’ll move to a different place. ...

“There are a million ways to solve musical problems.”

Solutions for personality conflicts are a little harder to come by. When Helmet disbanded 13 years ago, Hamilton thought that was the end of his career as guitarist. He recalled telling songwriter Danny Kortchmar that he was more interested in composing with computers, keyboards, and samples. “I was fed up with the music business in ’98 when the band left, and I said, ‘I’m done with this. I’m not doing this guitar thing anymore,’” he said. “Danny said, ‘You’re a guitar player, and you’ve created this thing, and you’re going to continue to work at it and develop it. ... You’re not stopping the guitar. That’s ridiculous.’ It was more that I was just frustrated that I put in so much time and worked so hard and my bandmates just decided they were done. They were great players, and we had a great thing going. We needed time off. There was no doubt we worked hard for 10 years. But they decided they were done with it.”

Hamilton said he’s pleased with the current band – guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Dave Case, and drummer Kyle Stevenson – and that he’ll continue with Helmet as long as he can. “I still love doing the Helmet thing, and it’s the kind of music that is physically exhausting enough that I know at some point, Father Time will tell me to stop,” he said. “I’m not Ozzy Osbourne. God bless him, but he’s got ... personal assistants and private jets and people to take care of stuff for him. We’re doing this tour in a van, and I’m 51. I know at a certain point it’ll become impractical.”

He suggested that Helmet is a priority as a result, that he can pursue his musical career in jazz full-time when he can’t go on with his best-known band: “I can sit down when I play jazz. I can’t really sit down when I play Helmet. It’s very demanding.”

Hamilton said he hopes he will “be smart enough to stop” when the proper time comes, but “right now I feel like I’m singing better than I ever have, and my playing is better, as well, and I love the new album. I really enjoy playing the songs live.”

He also doesn’t view Helmet and jazz guitar as separate entities; they inform each other. “Helmet has made my jazz playing better, and obviously jazz has influenced the way I write and the way I play and even the way I sing ... ,” he said. “I don’t look at it like it [Helmet] takes away from anything. They complement each other for sure. People’ve asked me for years, ‘I don’t hear jazz in Helmet.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you’re not listening close enough then.’”

And he said that there’s plenty of musical territory to discover and explore – even in the relatively narrow confines of Helmet. Roberts, he said, offered an exercise in which a guitarist slowly plays random notes, never on the same string consecutively, as a way to hear new possibilities.

“There’s so much in music to learn,” he said. “You’ll never exhaust the possibilities. And that can be really overwhelming. It’s why a lot of people give up and stop being creative, I think – rock bands in particular. ...

“Every combination of notes that I know on the fretboard might be great, but I’m never going to run out of combinations of notes on the fretboard. So I’m still working at it. I have to, because it’s part of what makes me happy. ... It’s more satisfying than having a guitar-shaped pool.”

Helmet will perform on Saturday, October 8, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show starts at 8 p.m. and also features Eleven Fifty-Two and the Post Mortems. Tickets are $15 in advance (available from RIBCO.com) and $20 the day of the show.

For more information on Helmet, visit HelmetMusic.com.


Sidebar: Technically Speaking – Page Hamilton Explains the Jazz Theory of Helmet Solos

If you’re not fluent in musical theory, try comprehending this explanation of Helmet solos by band mastermind Page Hamilton: “My solos are so weird. There’s this harmonic stuff going on – harmolodic as Ornette [Coleman] would say – and there’s noise, and there are all these things that go into my solos, and they’re harmonically pretty complex. Because the music is essentially modal. It’s not diatonic harmonies with five-to-one resolution, you know what I mean? It’s not classical harmony. So I have a lot of freedom, but I got inspired by Coltrane and Miles when they would just play two chords, and Coltrane starting playing chords over the top of those chords. So it’s there, but I don’t expect everyone to hear it. And also, Helmet obviously feels a lot different than a straight-up metal band or a punk band or a hardcore band. Our feel is more of a swing eighths than a straight eighths ... . Helmet definitely swings more. The jazz influence is definitely there.”