Monday, 23 April 2012

Gig Review: Helmet @ Sound Control, Manchester

Band reunion tours and albums are everywhere you look these days, and the results can charitably be called mixed. But before we delve into where the Helmet reunion falls on the good/shit spectrum, it is our duty to dabble with the support act.

Fighting With Wire are a bunch of amiable Irish chaps who come across as fairly youthful yet seasoned tour supports and arrive in Manchester wielding a grungey alt.-rock aesthetic that stands to reap huge dividends for them in the current musical climate. A wee bit of early Biffy Clyro here, a dram of Nirvana there and a mixed dollop of A and Foo Fighters to top things off. Their biggest problem is a pronounced lack of originality, combined with a sometimes jarring transition of sounds between songs. The latter in itself isn't a problem - but it becomes one when every song is strongly reminiscent of a different influence. Still, there's plenty of charisma and toned energy on show. They're certainly not objectionable and with some more work on their own style they could make significant headway.

And so on to Helmet. Since their reformation in 2004, they have put out three albums of somewhat questionable quality. And by that, I mean they weren't very good. At all. While not quite at the bottom of the dreck pile, they're also far below the level one would expect from the guys who put out the likes of 'Meantime' and 'Aftertaste'. Which might be because, Chris Traynor on the first two new records aside, the rebirth of Helmet has been Page Hamilton plus Other Musicians. This is a growing trend in band reunions, and a sign that increasingly a whole band dynamic is being undervalued. Either that, or that people will do anything for cash once the money is gone. Maybe I'm just being cynical and demanding that my old favourites live up to my nostalgic standards. But hey, both of those are valuable skills for any reviewer.

Still, I'm not here to judge the last three Helmet records. "What was the gig like, o Bastard of our dreams?" I hear you cry.

Well, it was much better than their recent studio efforts. An initial smattering of newer material was helped along by both opening with my favourite Helmet tune "Like I Care", not to mention the reverse-order playthrough of their 1992 classic 'Meantime' that followed the initial salvo. Page Hamilton plus Other Musicians rammed home an hour and a bit of punishing and angular rock into our sweaty faces - and it was punishment eagerly accepted by a relaxed but enthusiastic crowd. The blips of recent songwriting that poked their heads above the battlement tentatively did come across better in a live setting, as did the weaker tracks off 'Meantime' itself - which melds together excellently into a blistering whole when being pitched offstage as precisely timed depth charges of bass-driven sound. There is an authority and power to the seemingly simple song construction and riffage of older Helmet songs that is hard to deny, and the more one listens to said songs the more it becomes apparent just how big a debt a lot of younger bands owe these forefathers of alternative metal.

Hamilton is surprisingly affable and funny onstage, as well. Which helps to smoothen the gig along, since even their most ardent fan would be hard-pressed to deny that much of the earlier Helmet material can be somewhat po-faced. The reason for the choice to play 'Meantime' backwards becomes firmly apparent by the close of the gig, when a storming "In The Meantime" comes roaring out of the amps like a righteously charging bull and each individual unified stomp pounds the floor to dusty chunks. A swift choice pick of tunes from 'Betty' and 'Aftertaste' closes proceedings, leaving all concerned well satisfied and sufficiently brutalised.

So, then. The newer incarnation of Helmet. I can't in all honesty recommend the albums. But miss Hamilton & company live at your own mortal peril.

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