You name it, the New York-based Helmet has been tagged everything, including alternative, metal, progressive and thrash. But they think of themselves as a mere pop band, which is odd, considering their hard, grinding assault and deference to mass appeal in favor of artistic integrity. This group has been in the public eye for eight years, yet still, no one can define what it is they do.
This explains why Helmet isn’t one of the world’s biggest bands, although they should be. They remain a critic’s favorite, and have long hovered on the verge of blockbuster status. Since their 1992 release Meantime, other bands have attempted to pirate their obliterating sound and fury.
But Helmet’s Sabbath-stoked vocals, seething guitars, hemorrhaging rhythm section and experimental songwriting distinguish them as true innovators in perpetual transition. Their fourth and newest release, Aftertaste, is set to position Helmet squarely in the big leagues. Maybe ’97 will be their year.
A back-to-basics album, Aftertaste has been described by the band as a return to their roots. On their last release, ’94s Betty, Helmet dabbled in jazz, hip-hop, even funk, all within a metal framework. In contrast, Aftertaste is a melodic collection of catchy, hook-laden tunes – a kinder, gentler Helmet, perhaps? Are you kidding? The album retains all the brutality one would expect from Helmet, nestled within an eminently listenable context. “I consider half of this album to be a little more song-oriented than the last one, taking us a big step forward,” explains the band’s 28-year-old drummer John Stanier. “The other half goes all the way back to our very first record.”
That would be Strap It On, which came out in 1989, not long after Helmet signed a multi-album record-breaking million-dollar contract with Interscope Records. Stanier surprises us when he says, “That was a really difficult period for us to go through. It was a good deal, but for a while, people were only talking about the deal, and not the music.” Still, Stanier can hardly complain about how quickly events unfolded. Helmet had been together for a matter of months when they were signed, and Stanier had lived in New York for only a year before he hooked up with the other band members through a want ad in the Village Voice.
He moved to the Big Bad Apple in the Summer of ’88 after attending the University of South Florida for two years, where he studied classical percussion. “That’s where I learned all the rudiments, and I also studied percussion ensemble, mallets and all of that,” he says. “It was all orchestral – a totally different universe from what I’m doing now. At that time, I was studying and playing all of the orchestral stuff during the day, and at night, I was playing in a hardcore band. Both worlds sort of clashed.”
Yeah, kind of.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stanier and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he was a teenager. His parents were bohemians – his mother an artist, his father a tenor-saxophonist-turned-teacher – who contributed to his appreciation of diverse musical styles. “I’ve been exposed to just about everything, musically speaking,” he says. “My parents played a pretty big range of music at home. Sun Ra was my first concert, when I was two. I never really got into jazz – although I respect it – probably because I grew up with it and it was played so much around the house. It really wasn’t my thing because I hadn’t discovered it for myself. So I had to find music that was my own, so to speak.”
Stanier was practically in diapers when it dawned on him that drumming was so darn cool: “It was really early on, because when we were little, my dad was still playing music, and that’s when I knew it was going to be the drums. At the time, we lived in Pittsburgh and he was teaching college and he’d have these all-night parties with all his musician friends coming over to play. I remember this drummer, who I would watch all night long. I guess I picked the drums because they were the loudest.
“When I was 12, I started jamming with a bunch of guys in my garage. The cool thing about my parents was that we could always play in our garage and they’d never complain. And we were loud. Really loud.” Surprisingly, Stanier’s earliest influences were not drummers from the heaviest rock bands, but progressive rockers. “Hands-down, Neil Peart,” he answers when asked which drummer he venerated most while growing up. “I think he completely re-wrote the book on rock drumming. Bonham definitely did a lot for rock drumming, but Peart took it to the next level. I really went through a prog-rock period, listening to Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer. Then I got into Terry Bozzio, who completely blew me away. I’m also influenced by hardcore stuff – Chuck Biscuits and early D.O.A., Grant Hart from Husker Du, Alex Van Halen, too. I also got into Lenny White and Return To Forever.”