Helmet “Aftertaste”


(18 March 1997, Interscope)

Helmet are one of those deceptively brilliant bands. A cursory listen will leave one thinking this is a simple, caveman rock band with no depth and a modicum of talent. And the caveman description would be somewhat appropriate. They called their third album Betty and opened it with the track “Wilma’s Rainbow.” I can only assume these were references to the most well-known cave women in pre-history.

Most of the songs on Aftertaste are pretty formulaic. Simple, syncopated riff+angry vocals=Helmet. The strange thing is Page Hamilton’s ability to sing in a tone so close to yelling, but still so melodic. It’s the perfect balance of rage and tunefulness. I haven’t heard anyone else combine these elements and produce such a satisfying product.

Opener “Pure” relies on one chugged chord for the main riff and a strummed octave chorus, but it creates a beautiful wall of sound. This is a band that uses negative space better than any other band in existence. The brilliance is not just in the notes they play or don’t play, but in the spaces between those notes.

The most well known cavewomen in pre-history

It’s easy to let an album like this fade into the background. To be honest, most of the songs sound so similar it’s difficult to tell them apart. But every now and again you hear something like the guitar solo of “Driving Nowhere” or the superb noise of “Broadcast Emotion” and it’s like catching a glimpse some mythical beast rising from the murky depths. The bass heavy intro of “Renovation” is hard to ignore as it hearkens back to “Milktoast” from Betty.

After a few listens light finds its way through the cracks in the stone to illuminate cave drawings I missed on the first pass. I’ve been jamming to Betty in my car for the past few days thinking it’s a superior product to this one, but then I hear “Like I Care” for the second time and I’m amazed that I listened to it with anything other than… amazement.

 

I could go on and on about this album, but mostly I just want to- wait, what the hell? Did you catch that? There’s a string of like four songs that clock in at about 2.5 minutes and sound like they’re cut off in the middle. Is that a problem with my Spotify account? Or is is supposed to be like that?

I’m not even sure how to classify Helmet. Hard rock seems most appropriate. They’re a bit too heavy to call alternative, but not quite heavy enough for metal. And even though Hamilton is an accomplished Jazz player with chops to spare I don’t think prog or fusion fits. Wikipedia calls them post-metal, but I’m strongly opposed to defining any type of music by saying it came after some other type.

I imagine if Goldilocks were to find this in the three bears’ record collection she would describe Aftertaste as just right.

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Fiona Apple “Tidal”


FionaAppleTidal(23 July 1996, Columbia)

A few weeks ago I saw that Tidal was trending on Twitter. I had already planned to do this post so I clicked to see what people were saying. I thought they were talking about Fiona Apple’s magnificent 1996 debut. With the 20th anniversary coming up it made sense. The first tweet linked to an article about how Apple was trying to buy Tidal. Well, this confused me, but then I read it was about tech giant Apple wanting to buy a music streaming service Jay-Z started.

Well, that makes more sense. No one cares about a great piece of music from 20 years ago.

But I wasn’t completely naive to think others still care about Fiona Apple. According to her Wikipedia page the album received awesome acclaim from Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Slate Magazines and is featured in 1001 Albums to Listen to Before you Die.

And then, of course, there is that video. To males of my generation Apple was one of the ultimate sex symbols thanks to “Criminal.” It’s worth noting that this was before the slut-pop explosion of the late 90’s featuring Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and P!nk. Sure, there were other sexy videos at the time, but I can’t remember any of them. I can barely remember any from Britney, Christina or P!nk any more. But “Criminal” is permanently etched in my brain. I think that video may have jump started my pituitary gland into early onset puberty. And now that I’m older I still love this video. Especially the end part where the dish detergent floats up in the air. What the hell is that all about?

But the greatest thing is that the song is about a woman admitting she was wrong, and that’s something we don’t get to hear often enough.

 

It seems disrespectful to lump Apple in with all of the other slut-pop singers. About the only thing she had in common with them was the gratuitous partial nudity (which should be noted only occurred in one video). Aside from that she had more in common with Adele; a sultry voice, jazzy music, lack of choreography and actual talent. If Miley Cyrus’ genre of music is like a romantic comedy, Fiona Apples’ is a serious drama.

It’s also worth noting that Apple never seemed particularly comfortable with her role as rock star/sex symbol. From the “the world is bullshit” acceptance speech she made when receiving a Video Music Award to dating Marilyn Manson to her current status as eccentric artist she never seemed to relish stardom or bask in it. I don’t think shes done extremely well weathering the storms of fame, but she’s done a lot better than Kurt Cobain.

And aside from that one megahugegiganticenourmous hit song there are another nine great tunes. I’ve never cared too much for opener “Sleep to Dream.” I think it may have to do with the instrumentation. I’d prefer piano and drums to the weird backward bass loops. “Shadowboxer” has always been a favorite for it’s driving piano riff. “The First Taste” is interesting and has a bit of an island feel even without steel drums. Because of the line “There’s too much going on…” “Sullen Girl” has always reminded me of “Talking Old Soldiers” by Elton John. They don’t have much in common except for the piano and that one line, but it’s enough for me to make a connection.

My one problem with the album is how much of it is piano/vocal ballads. They’re great songs, but it’s not the kind of music I tend to pull down off the shelf very often. Of course, I can’t imagine what the songs would sound like with a more prominent backing band.

fionaappleBut the lyrics more than make up for any issues I may have. It’s weird and somewhat worrisome that I find the ramblings of this crazy girl so relatable, but with all the copies of this album that sold I can’t have been the only one. My favorite is from the closer “Carrion”: “My feel for you boy, Is decaying in front of me, Like the carrion of a murdered prey.”

That’s right, she’s comparing her emotions to roadkill. This is truly a woman after my own heart.