Thursday, September 16th 2010
Four years after a distracted misstep, Helmet’s new album Seeing Eye Dog is a confident redemption, and perhaps their boldest album since their 1994 breakthrough Betty.
That’s not to say that it’s as gratifying as the band’s beloved earlier work; While it may cancel out Monochrome, those first four albums get more untouchable as the band gets older. But thankfully, mastermind Page Hamilton’s experience with movie scores and intensely technical attention to detail in all that he hears and plays has added depth where the band’s trademark brute force has arguably weakened.
This saving grace only becomes evident as you venture deep into the album, and it in fact lies completely dormant until track four. LA Water features orchestral string accents that manifest so naturally (and are mixed so tastefully), it’s hardly even a surprise, despite the band’s legacy being built on sheer attitude and few-chord riffs.
Morphing is an instrumental interlude, a carving out of layers of textural noise as all of Hamilton’s score work tends to be. It ties together the two more effective of the disc’s straightforward traditionally Helmet power-chord rock songs on either side, In Person and White City. The former is a driving song, not just lyrically (How does it feel / with your hands on the wheel…) but sonically as well, on a high speed rhythmic cruise control through anthemic choruses and squealing, scenic noise fills. White City is a bit slower by comparison, a thumping metal ballad. Both songs, though, benefit greatly by Hamilton’s open, unstrained vocals, in contrast to the album’s opening tracks.
Those three tracks do manage to settle into a comfortable place after a few listens. But So Long and the title track feature vicious, snarling guttural vocals that come as a bit of a surprise. On one hand, their serrated edge does complement the familiar start n’ stop distorted riffs the band brings out in full force. On the other hand, aside from being simply unfamiliar (which is, of course, not demerit-able), the delivery comes across as a little forced. Perhaps because such ground-up vocals have to literally be physically forced out of the throat, but it’s hard not to diagnose as trying too hard, at least initially.
With that said, perhaps nothing is as surprising as the cover of The Beatles’ And Your Bird Can Sing. It’s very apparent Hamilton has studied the Beatles catalog, and of course this song, which evolved into a somewhat (relatively) faithful cover after an earlier, heavier version didn’t sit well. It comes across not as a vanity track, or cheap filler, but as a genuine tribute, with the band pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone in an attempt to hit (rather than maneuver around) the dynamic changes and subtle achievements of the original.
Ultimately, Seeing Eye Dog succeeds in every way that Monochrome failed, and proves to be as satisfying as the band’s respectable 2004 comeback Size Matters. It may take some time to tap the keg, however. There are a lot of twists and turns, and the innovations are a mixed bag of double edged swords sure to evenly divide the fans’ knee-jerk reactions.