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Inexhaustible Possibilities: Helmet, October 8 at RIBCO
Written By: Jeff Ignatius
Section: Music

Category: Feature Stories

2011-09-29 13:20:45

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.


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