Page Hamilton will spiel rhetoric all over a press release before he'll get to telling you about the new HELMET album, the first since 2010's "Seeing Eye Dog". Religious tchotchkes, perfume lines, spying neighbors, rattled off like a slam—nearly a bigger WTF moment than some of the challenging peculiarities awaiting the HELMET fan on "Dead to the World".
Just as Hamilton has opened the door to his own musical whims by writing jazz material outside of HELMET, the implications from his interviews during the "Seeing Eye Dog" album cycle suggested he had maybe two HELMET albums left in him coming into his 50th birthday. Well, "Dead to the World" represents the second of that prospectus, which leads to the expected question: will this be it for HELMET?
If so, "Dead to the World" is going to leave listeners with a looming concern, one that may be answered by the rotating spindle of ghosts that ushered a cavalcade of past members in and out of this band. There are some wicked cool moments on "Dead to the World", namely Page Hamilton's static shock guitar screeches. On the flipside, there's stuff on this album to cause as much alarm as CANDLEBOX's soft-soaped new entry, "Disappearing in Airports".
"Dead to the World" starts off well enough with "Life or Death", a low-key FOO FIGHTERS-meets-SMASHING PUMPKINS rocker. Stuffed with pissy chords and an even pissier lyrical scheme, "Life or Death" still pumps with a singalong chorus and Page Hamilton's sweltering guitar solo. Screeching his way into "I ♥ My Guru" thereafter, Hamilton's vocal and guitar ranting continues. Even though this is still a far cry from "Ironhead", "Tic", "Rollo" or "Turned Out" (largely due to Hamilton's weird oh-oh nattering), the instrumentation is as heavy as you want it. Ditto for the menacing skulk of "Red Scare" which would rock harder if Page was dropping tougher vocals to match the grumbly riffs. This is one of two main complaints about "Dead to the World" as an album: higher-pitched, cheery vocals that offset any intent of pounding HELMET fans into submission.
It's the BEATLES splashes doused overtop the hammering groove of "Bad News" where this album takes a curious turn. Old guard listeners are advised to be well on thier guard as things progress. Page Hamilton tears another gritty guitar solo to keep the 2:27 "Bad News" mucky, but the attempt to give the title track an earthy prog feel screams of "Angel Rat" era VOIVOD, devoid of the latter's precision. Of course, HELMET in the beginning was intended to be raw and bombastic, which makes "Dead to the World" and the shocking alt-pop spritz of "Green Shirt" thereafter hard to digest. While evolution is always encouraged from veteran musicians, there's little way to describe the disastrous "Green Shirt" other than it's the most anti-HELMET song the band's unsung to themselves.
Then again, there's the mopey alt-swerve on "Expect the World" that's only rescued by meaty chords on the choruses. Unfortunately, Page Hamilton's scraggly pipes on those choruses are downright miserable, sounding like a thoroughly wasted Billy Corgan. Overall the song sounds like a throwaway SMASHING PUMPKINS cut that wouldn't even make a B-sides comp. Ironic that a song called "Drunk in the Afternoon" (a miles superior track) is yet to come. Hamilton does come to his senses on the blunt and nasty "Die Alone". Even if his choky vocal emissions are yet again a nuisance here, "Die Alone" is a riff monster.
Of all the noodling moments on this album, "Look Alive" is the best, a merge between classic HELMET, Alice Cooper and on a more contemporary kick, MY MORNING JACKET—even if it's the most un-HELMET-like song outside of "Green Shirt".
Let's be frank, HELMET is beloved by many for being one the scrappiest bands to unfairly be swept into the grunge movement. It's why we care that this album even exists. These guys, at least from "Born Annoying" through "Betty", would have only the MELVINS or QUICKSAND to give them a run for the money. While HELMET is undoubtedly a product of its era, "Dead to the World" is nearly the band's undoing. Here Page Hamilton is after something altogether different than he was on "Meantime", one of the best albums to come out in 1992. "Monochrome" was a mean mother of an album, even if took getting used to Hamilton previewing his bubblegummy vocal shift. The method worked far better with "On Your Way Down" since the song itself kicked ass. Just as HELMET got away with a momentary diversion with "Biscuits for Smut" from "Betty".
The risks taken on "Dead to the World" are dicey and the payoffs are slimmer than the ground-up-yet-peppy "Monochrome". For all the criticisms to this album, however, Page Hamilton still peels the paint with his guitar solos here, and they all but singlehandedly rescue a fragile album from altogether crumbling.