Watching a band lose its identity is never pretty.
Save for a seven-year span from 1997 to 2004 (about the time alternative was getting overcrowded to the point it was safe for many bands to come out of hiding), they’ve still been not only active but not a whole lot has changed with their style. The piston-drill sound they’ve always had is still intact, leaving many to wonder what else could be done with a seemingly one-dimensional style.
The question is answered on Seeing Eye Dog: change up the lyrics and vocal style of frontman Page Hamilton. The main force behind the band keeps the main thrust of the band’s attack but changes up the targeting system, leaving behind in its wake a surprisingly three-dimensional record – even if that image is somewhat of a mess.
“So Long” seems to pick up right where they left off, with “seems” being the operative word. The riff, as you could expect, will beat you senseless – but the moment Hamilton opens his mouth and sounds a lot like Therapy?’s Andrew Cairns, something’s amiss. No longer content to drone on like he used to in what was mostly a futile attempt to overpower his own music, Hamilton plays the part of vocal chameleon, changing his voice to match the emotion or mood he’s going for. Just that small of a change, believe it or not, makes a world of difference.
The title track mocks and deride, while “LA Water” is more wistful (if not a bit ironic). Helmet has always been falsely accused of being all about the anger, but this time Hamilton – now 50 years old – is looking to euthanize that perception. The range of emotion coming from Hamilton, from a vocal standpoint, even surprised Hamilton, as he told NoiseCreep, ””Once I got on the mic this thing came out — this voice and [vocal producer Mark Ren] was like, ‘Holy f—‘ And I go, ‘Yeah. That’s what I wanted.’ Because I knew it needed that sort of delivery.”
Mission accomplished, in that respect. The effect is so stark that Helmet, particularly on tracks like “White City” with its laid-back chugging and weaving melody, almost seems like a different band. “And Your Bird Can Sing” sounds so much like Smashing Pumpkins that Billy Corgan is taking notes as he’s listening. The odd mid-album instrumental “Moprphing” is a piece Hans Zimmer would be better to critique than anyone else. Then there are also examples, such as “In Person” which follows “Unsung”’s pattern to the hilt, that it all sounds too familiar.
Seeing Eye Dog is a rather uneven record. That could be used to describe almost anything, but here the term is at its best example. On the surfac, there’s virtually no difference. The rhythms and signatures, as they always have (for those that paid attention), keeps in with Hamilton’s jazz influences. Chris Traynor’s guitar, Hamilton’s mood notwithstanding, is still content to bullet itself in to your brain the whole time the record spins. The trademark noisy piledriver sound is still intact, but the usual chaos, instead of serving the band’s mission, veers entirely out of control.
There’s nothing wrong with a band experimenting, but sounding like other acts defeats the purpose entirely – unless Hamilton has always secretly envied Corgan, which could be a news story in and of itself. The trademark noise-rock is there, sounding like Helmet at times, but at other occasions they sound like a completely different or – worst of all – other peers.
Helmet’s new album should be recognized for accomplishing its goal of branching out emotionally. However, in doing such, Seeing Eye Dog becomes a study in losing an identity. The album doesn’t follow suit musically on a consistent basis at all, which would be great if they maintained quality all the way around. Helmet sounding like any other band is a feat once thought impossible, but it happens here much to the detriment of this new album.