Helmet – Aftertaste

   1997 Interscope

Helmet was arguably the first “Alterna-core” band.  Bursting on the alternative scene in 1992 with ‘Meantime’ (their second official release), the strict, sharp and disciplined riffing of Page Hamilton and Peter Mengede’s guitars struck a major (albeit brief) chord with the masses in a time of confusion when alternative was struggling to redefine itself.

Those who were riveted by the heavy riffing and heavy, grunting – almost hardcore – vocals that occasionally lapsed into shoe-gazing melody on ‘Meantime’ were no doubt thrown for a loop by the muddy, ragged and often confusing follow-up ‘Betty.’  Indeed, when ‘Betty’ was released people pined for the overplayed (but still cool) ‘Unsung’ from the debut over new cuts like the lackluster ‘Milquetoast’ or even the cool ‘Biscuits for Smut.’

‘Aftertaste’ takes the best elements of Helmet’s heaviest moments and melds them with a more powerful updating of Hamilton’s slacker drone.  The atonal grunts are gone for the most part and reveal a dark, emotional (and often introspective) depth to Hamilton’s vocals.  Not so much in academic tonal quality, but in honesty.

Dave Sardy (mastermind of one of my Abysmal faves, Barkmarket) produces this one and, while some have been very critical of his production job, I love it.  The mix is brutally white hot and the sound just shreds your woofers from the first tortured, rhythmic chords of the opening track “Pure.”  From there, it just relentlessly hits you with some of the most precise, hooky, minimlist riffs you’ll ever hear.

It’s sad that this disc wasn’t the followup to ‘Meantime,’ as sonically it’s a more logical step forward than ‘Betty.’  Flip side of the coin is that ‘Aftertaste’ probably couldn’t have existed without ‘Betty’ coming first, as the vocal elements that were so droning and powerless on ‘Betty’ have been refined into a nuclear weapon here.

“I’d rather be insulted by you than someone I respect” roars Hamilton on ‘Birth Defect’ and his brutally honest delivery makes me a believer.   Incidentally, ‘Birth Defect’ possesses one of the aforementioned minimalist riffs honed to perfection.  “Renovation,” “Exactly What You Wanted” (YYYYyyyyeeeaaaahhhh!), “Diet Aftertaste,” “(High) Visibility” and “Insatiable” are some other high points on a disc that grabs you simultaneously by the neck an the heart and refuses to let go.

An amazing achievement walking the tightrope of power and emotion without ever lapsing into self-parody, which the band eventually did on their “comeback” release ‘Size Matters.’  Oh, well, this is really the only Helmet album you’ll ever need as they’ll probably never top it.  Every band deserves to have at least one disc where everything just comes together.  This one is Helmet’s.  Would be a 5, but toward the end of the disc I find myself in need of a bit of a respite from their relentless bludgeon, as a sameness kinda creeps in.

Rating:  4 out of 5