Review Summary: Helmet's best album in 20 years, but not for the reasons you'd expect
With this year’s Dead to the World, Page Hamilton’s decision to trade the visceral sonic squalor of classics like Strap it on and Meantime for a more straightforward engagement with vocal melodies finally makes sense. While none of Helmet’s post Aftertaste records have been bad, per se, it has always been confounding that Page made the decision to consistently play against his band’s strengths; Hamilton’s pummeling, precise staccato riffing and squealing, unhinged guitar solos will always pair better with the militant bark that marked the band’s 90s output than they will with the uncomfortable, nasally croon that has dominated, and, in some eyes, ruined, recent records. But Dead to the World offers a collection of concise, well-written and often vocally-driven songs that never veer into the awkward territory that allowed Monochrome to taper off as it reached its conclusion or caused the otherwise good Seeing Eye Dog feel like such an unbalanced affair. This isn’t to say that Page turns in some kind of masterful vocal performance (he doesn’t), but rather that he seems to have found the formula for making his weathered voice an asset rather than a hindrance.
For an example of this improved approach to vocals, Dead to the World’s early stand out, “I Love my Guru”, features a wailing riff that feels at home in the background, juxtaposed with Page’s most scathing, convincing vocal performance in well over a decade. His declaration of "tried to meditate / but I don't wanna clean up" is one of many lines in the track that feel forceful rather than forced, which would't have been the case on some previous records. The track is part of a punchy, punky three song suite that finds its strengths in never treading water for too long, quickly developing one idea and then fluidly moving on to the next. The teeming energy from these early tracks carries over to a middle section that’s dominated by Helmet’s more standard, mid-tempo brand of alternative metal. Rather the riffs lumber (“Drunk in the Afternoon”) or scorch (“Die Alone”) is besides the point; they are finally tolerably complemented by Page’s voice, which, despite its marked aging, manages to be adequately mean, varied, and melodic. And when Helmet does strive to soar (“Look Alive”), thinking of the band as arena-sized feels plausible, for perhaps the first time in the group's history. Dead to the World isn’t the best Helmet record in almost 20 years because it returns to the sound of old, but rather because it employs their more melodic style with tact, confidence, and most of all, conviction.