Thinking man's headbangers
Helmet has long been promising to inject hard rock with new life: A combo led by a jazz guitarist who plays tight, economical, and subtly brutal metallic rock looks great on paper, and the underlying intelligence is another feather in leader Page Hamilton's cap. Why, then, does this surface so seldom? By this, their fourth album, Helmet seems quite content to be the thinking man's headbangers--some achievement, given the industry's low standards--but the formula is getting rather thin. It makes you wish Hamilton and company would throw commercial considerations to the wind and put out an album full of surprises. Perhaps create a jazz-metal hybrid; Hamilton's collaboration with axe-grinder Caspar Brotzman proved that he can. Helmet instead re-refries the same can of beans, an art(ifice) they should leave to Soundgarden.
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On the surface, Aftertaste is a big-budget action movie, bombarding you and then leaving you with nothing. The more you listen, though, the more you suspect that Hamilton may be fed up with it too, and that giving the punters what they want could be perverse payback. "Exactly What You Wanted" could address his fans, rushing out to buy the new album: "Now you can be disappointed/I thought I gave you/Exactly what you wanted."
Hamilton understands perfectly that through his music he speaks to a jilted generation that has been conditioned to expect less. "United Arab Emirates/Still keep the gas in my car/Driving nowhere fast," he belts out in "Driving Nowhere," and in fact his acerbic tongue alone raises Aftertaste a notch higher than standard rock. "I'd rather be insulted by you/Than someone I respect," he spits in "Birth Defect." In "Broadcast Emotion" he blurts again: "Brought up to peak broadcast emotion/As calculated as the news is/At least you've got yourself impressed." His choppy lyrics and delivery suggest that his audience's attention span can go no further.
Aftertaste could be the ultimate album of the Nineties: cliched, short, angry, and ultra-slick. It has "mass appeal" written all over its blurred cover photo, and the fact that it feels so much like "product" cannot be anything else but intentional. To play hard rock in 1997 must involve irony, and Helmet revels in this paradox as it strips the music of all its sheen and pomp and regurgitates it in a bare, clinical form. Aftertaste gets a "C" for its delightful cynicism. Make it a "C+" considering that the selling point of their peers--the Bushes, Lives, Green Days and Holes--is a see-through, po-faced pseudo-sincerity.