We Love Music: Helmet @ SONAR 10/22/10

On Friday night, I took the MARC train to Baltimore, to meet my brother Marcus at SONAR, where we continued our brothers’ tradition of seeing Helmet in concert together every chance we get. Friday night was our sixth Helmet concert and Page Hamilton put on a casual but kick-ass show of guitar intensity that reminded us both why we’ve always held Helmet’s music in such high regard.*

Friday’s concert also featured two opening acts: Intronaut and Fight Amp. I have been digging on Intronaut’s albums for awhile now and this was my first chance to see them perform in concert. Fight Amp was an unknown element for me going into the show, but I had read some message board love for them that had me interested enough to show up early. To my surprise, Intronaut proved to be a disappointment and Fight Amp put on the more entertaining opening set.

First up was Fight Amp of South Jersey. Playing right up to the edge of the SONAR’s tiny “club” stage due to the other bands’ gear set-up behind them, Fight Amp were a young-looking trio whose noise-rock was a lot fiercer than their appearance. Featuring some really great bass playing and trade-off screamed vocals, Fight Amp’s music was reminiscent of earlier noise-rock groups like Hammerhead or Bark Market. Even though they clearly wore their inspiration on their sleeve, Fight Amp got a good rhythmic noise-rock vibe going that set the mood for a night of good old fashioned aggressive guitar music.

It is a pity that Intronaut did not keep that vibe going. Their set was a melodic, noodling, jam session that indulged all of their Prog-rock inclinations while abandoning their hard edge and focus. Intronaut have always walked the thin line between Metal and Post-Metal as their sound has evolved over time. Their new album is their Prog-iest yet but it is still also a rocking piece of work. I would call their set on Friday an embarrassing mess but for the fact that what was wrong with it was intended rather than by mistake. Their meandering jam band presentation bogged down the room and when they did unleash some guitar force it felt more like a wanna-be Isis move than a sincere performance. I hope that Intronaut were just off that night or something. Their albums are still great but the set they put together on Friday felt out of place sandwiched between Fight Amp’s trad noise-rock and Helmet’s driving alt-metal. Even in a different context though, it would still rank as a disappointing, unfocused performance.

By the time Page Hamilton and his current band took the tiny club stage, the room was full with Helmet fans. To my right was a batch of drunk older fans, calling out in excitement. I knew that when the right song hit, these guys would be slamming left and the area in front of the stage would become a pit. As I waited for Helmet to start, I pitied the crowd of couples innocently filling in, right in front of the stage. I was also sort of secretly looking forward to that moment too. Helmet’s blitzkrieg music cuts right through the bullshit and attacks the aggression center of the brain. Screaming out the lyrics and slamming around is the appropriate response to such primal music. Sure enough, as soon as Helmet launched into ‘Ironhead’ the polite, head-nodding, couples between me and the stage were cleared out by a horde of slam-dancing barbarians from the east.

Page opened the set with a mix of songs from the new album “Seeing Eye Dog” and the last classic Helmet album “Aftertaste”. The new backing band sounded good as they punched out the rhythms but they were not quite as tight as Helmet line-ups I’ve seen in the past. Page Hamilton’s guitar playing was stellar as always. At times his fingers floated over the frets and strings so rapidly and seemingly effortlessly that it created the illusion that he wasn’t even touching them. It was a guitar guru style of playing that reminded me of watching Killing Joke‘s Geordie Walker or Buckethead. Hamilton’s playing got more and more impressive as the set continued. Each time I see him play, Hamilton is better than the last. Every good master of guitar is also a perpetual student and seeing what new tricks Page has up his sleeve is one of the most interesting things about following Helmet’s career so closely.

It was obvious that Hamilton has also been doing some voice development too. I don’t know that I have heard a Helmet show have clearer vocals than at Friday’s. Page abandoned some of his classic snarl and replaced it with a vocal clarity that reinvigorated the lyrics of his older songs while nicely introducing some of the themes on the new album. For the most part Helmet’s set list was broken down into three song segments that each featured a different album’s work. “Aftertaste”, “Meantime”, “Betty”, and the new one all got this treatment. “Size Matters” was completely passed over and we only got one song off “Monochrome”. Page did throw us a couple of bones from Helmet’s first album “Strap It On”; the best being an excellent version of ‘Sinatra’. We got a pretty special treat in hearing ‘Better’ from “Meantime”; this is one of my favorite Helmet songs and I don’t think I have heard Page play it in over 10 years.

I was surprised to find that it was the songs off of “Betty” that sounded the best on Friday night. Usually the “Betty” tracks that Page plays live are my least favorite moments of a Helmet concert. But on Friday night they played an amazing rendition of “Tic” and later closed out the show with an incredible version of “Wilma’s Rainbow”. I have heard Helmet perform both of these songs quite a bit over the years, and the versions on Friday were the best. “Tic” was the sonic highlight of the night with the band sounding on point, Hamilton’s voice briefly finding its snarl, and his guitar playing being off the charts. The song closed out with a sick guitar solo descending into a controlled feedback wall, during which Page seemed to be surrounded by a field of electricity. It was as if he and his guitar had become one.

* I’ve seen Helmet perform about four other times on my own. And I have seen Ghandi (Page’s short-lived touring band) twice.

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

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