HELMET – SEEING EYE DOG – New Album review, live show review and interveiw with Page Hamilton

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Okay it’s been a Helmet week for me, you would think I might be Helmeted out. I’m not. Seeing Eye Dog is the new Helmet release, and as a full record it is my favorite so far. Seeing Eye Dog has the signature Page Hamilton guitar sound (like being punched in a vacuum) and the overall post- apocalyptic Helmet sound that should thrill new fans and the diehards alike.

The record opens with So Long, which lets us know that Helmet has not softened too much over the years and that this record is going to be heavy. Next up: the title track Seeing Eye Dog showcases Page’s guitar virtuosity as well as his vocals (you either like him or you don’t; he is a very honest singer). There are not a lot of overdubs on this record but there is very slick production with the vocals up front, the drums in a tight room and holy rolling thunder bass keeping it just above mud level.

I have heard many times that Helmet got where they are because of Nirvana paving the way. I do not agree, but at the end of the day it’s about the song writing and that’s only real thing Page Hamilton and Kurt Cobain have in common was great songwriting. Welcome To Algiers is the first moment on the record that we get a really good pop hook, but thankfully it’s not the last!

La Water has the most infectious bass line provided by Chris Traynor, and very stripped down verses that create a great spacial separation. This song at times reminds me of one of the most underrated bands of all time, Swell (pick up Too Many Days Without Thinking and you’ll see what I mean). Except Swell is based around acoustic guitars and of course Helmet is all about super distorted electric guitars.

In Person is my favorite track on this record, with equal parts big nasty guitars and vocals by Hamilton and great pounding drums by Kyle Stevenson. It’s go time on this song. I found myself singing along the first time I listened to it.

Page Hamilton has done so many things outside of Helmet, from playing with Bowie to soundtrack work. Morphing plays like a soundtrack piece, and serves as a great ending for side A. Side B begins with White City, a dirging dirt rock manifesto of spiritual complacency. It sells the sadness with just a touch of ironic hope. And then, out of left field comes a cover of The Beatles And Your Bird Can Sing, and we can breathe a sigh of relief because the sun will in fact shine tomorrow. This cover is not a throw-away by any means, as it is a faithful and earnest rendition. Miserable is anything but. It’s angry; it’s payback time. Yet all the while, the head is nodding and the smile is creeping.

The record ends with She’s Lost. Even though it clocks in a bit long at 6:13 it is a fitting end for a fine record. Does Helmet sound like they did on Meantime? Yes, and no. Is it a good thing? Yes. Page is spreading his wings and I for one applaud him. With his talents he could do any kind of music and this is what he chooses to do. He chooses to do for himself while being faithful to the Helmet ethos and therefore do for his fans as well.

4.5 (out of 5)

J.S.L.

Next we are off to The Key Club on the lovely sunset strip to see Helmet live.

I was told the set time for Helmet would be 10:15pm, they went on at 11:30. I had been up since 6am…I was cranky. I am kinda cranky in general. As I was just starting to seethe, I met a nice young man (whose name escapes me). Anyway he told me I was in luck because Intronaut, the band that was opening for Helmet, was amazing.

The drummer was warming up doing jazz fills etc and I was like, okay this could go either way. Long story short, Intronaut’s lead singer looks like someone who used to tutor my son in math. Until he hit that first chord, then it’s off the chain loud and a complex noise fest.

Intronaut is scary good. Speaking of math, I could barley understand the time signatures they played in. The five string bass player (who kinda looked like a grizzly bear, planted in the front of the stage) was playing in half time against the drummer etc. The drummer is amazing. After five songs that lasted 40 minutes, I was exhausted. I’m interested in hearing studio performances, because I couldn’t hear the vocals at all. Even though there were no catchy songs, I felt like I was watching a metal version of King Crimson, which the musician in me loved.

Then Helmet blasted on to the stage with an aural assault like no other. I’ve always felt that Helmet was the perfect blend of alternative, metal and punk, and never is that more evident then in the live show. I have to assume that Helmet brought their own microphones, as it was the first time I have actually heard decent sound at the Key Club. The club was three-fourths full, and the people there knew Helmet’s material and ate it up. The band was super tight.

The old Helmet joke is that Helmet consists of Page Hamilton and whatever four guys are standing around at the moment. That’s not exactly true, but Helmet is Page Hamilton’s guitar sound, his voice and his approach. The touring band was chosen by Hamilton because he has to deliver what he thinks is Helmet, or I suspect he wouldn’t do it.

Hamilton’s solos live are like peeling paint with a rusty knife, they are jagged and distorted yet clearly based in a trained musician’s mind. He just likes what he does. The set consisted of a fair amount of new material, which I was grateful for because I wanted to see how they translated live. They translated fantastically – especially Welcome To Algiers which live takes on a whole new meaning… it’s just meaner I guess. The only downside to me was the absence of Unsung. I can imagine that sometimes you don’t want to play the same songs night after night but… I was pissed.

On a brighter side, he did play a few of his older classics like Milquetoast, In The Meantime, Ironhead, and Tic. The great pop sensibilities don’t come off quite as clean live for Helmet, but the energy that Hamilton and the band put out is huge rock and roll with no frills and that’s what’s appropriate for Helmet. This was the first time I had seen Helmet live and I plan on seeing them again. Is there a better endorsement than that?

3.5 (out of 5)

J.S.L.

And finally…to round out my national Helmet week spectacular, I had the opportunity to interview Page Hamilton. And this is how it went (more or less):

J: Hey Page

P.H.: Hey man, sorry about the delay.

J: No worries. So I really like the new record Seeing Eye Dog.

P.H.: Thanks man; I’m really happy with it myself and I feel super confident about it. I had this vibe going into the writing of it after I had taken some time off after doing a reformation of the band. I realized what impact the band had on the recording of Size Matters and the extra-curricular editing that went on without my knowledge. I was like, “What’s this? Helmet doesn’t edit guitars.” Helmet always records live as a three piece and then I do vocal and guitar overdubs. This version of the band had about three years to gel and to really understand how I work. I am the producer, songwriter, singer, rhythm and lead guitarist. It was really nice; I felt everyone involved was facilitating the creative process rather than hindering it.

J.: I love the drum sounds on the record, especially on In Person, which is my jam.

P.H.: That was either the last or second-to-last song we recorded, and Toshi Kasi who recorded and mixed the record was experimenting with different sounds. But overall it’s such a great sounding room.

J: Where is that?

P.H.: Ugh, I’m even loathe to mention it because even though it’s not a secret I want to make sure I can always get in there.

J: (Laughs) If it doesn’t get booked enough it may not exist next time you want to go in there!

P.H.: (Laughs) I know; Entourage over there on Magnolia in the valley. I always give them props: great people. We mixed in the B room which sounds great, and Toshi totally gets where I’m coming from.

J: People tell me that you’re a bit of a control freak; would you say that’s true?

P.H.: People have always accused me of that but I think I know what’s best for Helmet. Interscope really understood that and they basically left me alone to do my thing. They understood what Helmet was adding to the rock vocabulary and never got in the way.

J: You should know best, I mean they’re your songs right?

P.H.: Absolutely!

J: I’m getting the sense that recording this record was the most fun you’ve ever had recording.

P.H.: It was, and I hope to record a new record with the same guys next summer. I’ve learned to be patient. It used to be we’d record sixteen tracks, and I don’t need to do that anymore. If I can put ten good songs together, I’m happy. People got carried away with CDs and there was all this fat. The music I grew up with, like Led Zeppelin Four, Love Supreme by Coltrane or Reigning Blood by Slayer – they’re like thirty to forty-five minutes. Classic music that we all love. I have a masters degree in jazz guitar, a bachelors degree in classical guitar, and I can’t concentrate on music for seventy-two minutes.

J: I noticed you’ve embraced the pop sensibility.

P.H.: I’m essentially writing pop song structures. There is musical development, but you have cut to the chase. I started leaning that way on Aftertaste. I had been listening to a lot of Elvis Costello, in particular Get Happy and Armed Forces.

J: Many people wonder how you get the Page Hamilton sound.

P.H.: I remember working on a film years ago and someone said, “Man this is so weird; you’re playing my guitar and amp and yet it still sounds like you.” Billy Gibbons says it’s all in the hands and I think that’s true. I was determined since day one to have my own sound. I had to have my own thing.

J: I love the song Unsung, you didn’t play it the other night. I noticed someone yelling out song titles at the show and you would reply with “maybe” after suggestions, until he shouted Unsung then you said, “You have to tear this place apart to hear that one.” Do you not enjoy playing that song anymore?

P.H.: I love that song but you have to rotate songs. I mean you can ask a banker, do you like putting on a suit and tie everyday? I have the best job ever and if I play three thousand shows and play Unsung twenty-seven hundred of those shows I must still be into it, right?

J: In that case, you owe me one!

P.H.: (Laughs) Okay, right.

J: I went to Helmet.com and noticed some cool packaging for the new record.

P.H.: My manager also manages David Byrne and has always been very into creative packaging. We worked with Topspin to get it together; trying to find ways to make some money back. I entertained all the offers but ultimately I needed to get this record out. I still owe nine grand on my credit card but I got complete control.

J: I like that my CD came with a bonus disc of live stuff.

P.H.: Yeah I dig it. I encourage people to record my shows. I want to hear it! I want to hear the Boston show; I played the best guitar on the entire tour that night!

J: So the L.A. show wasn’t as good as the Boston show eh? Now you owe me two!

P.H.: (Laughs) Yeah right. The good news is I didn’t suck at all on this tour.

J: I know I have gone over my time limit so here it is, last question. Are you really a Portland Trailblazers fan?

P.H.: (Laughs) I was born in Portland Oregon so I have to be.

J: Who’s your favorite Blazer of all time? (Like I didn’t know)

P.H.: Clyde Drexler.

J: Yeah me too. Clyde Drexler… Clyde the Glide.

P.H.: He was awesome.

J: Agreed. Thanks for your time man.

P.H.: No Problem. Thank you!

So that’s it. Helmet week is over and I enjoyed the heck out it. Page Hamilton? Swell guy, non-conformist, genius guitarist, unassuming reluctant rock star. Hopefully there is a new record next year and I can make this an annual event! Thanks for joining me on my trek through the post apocalyptic cannibalistic aural soundscapes that is Helmet. We survived and we are better rock and rollers for it.

J.S.L.

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GARY NUMAN – THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (Live show review – El Rey Theatre – L.A. CA 11.4.10)

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Gary Numan is a fascinating artist. When he had his first bonified hit in the U.S.A with Cars in 1980 (which peaked at number 9 on the Billboard charts), people really didn’t know what to make of him. Especially after they bought The Pleasure Principle album, which is all-and-all much darker than Cars would have suggested. The video of the tour that followed this release, The Touring Principle, is considered by many (me included) to be the first full length music video in its conceptual design and implementation.

His post-apocalyptic vision and bleak overtones are so thoroughly felt on this record that when I heard he would be doing the record in its entirety 29 years after its release, I was super psyched. The one thing that nagged at me was that after Cars there is instrumental music and I wondered if he would play the record in order. He did not. He moved a few songs around for a presumably better live experience. He did however include all the tracks from the original vinyl release, which was appreciated.

Battle Circus started off the night with a bombastic and very loud, very tight set (usually the opening band is not allowed to be louder than the headliner). The crowd obviously enjoyed Battle Circus and showed it, by making some good noise for them when they finished.

The stage was set for the recreation of a classic. Gary Numan’s band opened the record with Random an instrumental demo that was included on the CD reissue.

The smoke machines were pumping and the synthesizers were soaring when Gary took the stage to wild applause. Gary and the boys flew though The Pleasure Principle (which has almost no guitar on it) with a deliberate authenticity. There were three people on keyboards at times.

Gary Numan has changed his sound somewhat over the years. That is most obvious on his last official release of new music, Jagged, which on its own is a fantastic albeit underrated goth, metal, industrial thing that fits somewhere into the Trent Reznor universe. (Reznor was clearly influenced by Numan by the way.)

After The Pleasure Principle finished, with many people I’m sure having time-travelled back to their youth,

Gary launched into his new sound. This was a big disconnect for some of the audience, because the sound is huge and mean. The band obviously is most comfortable with the newer material, as it was the first time they really started to move. My wife and I had the opportunity to see Gary Numan on the Jagged tour and it was fantastic! But it was all the new sound, so it made more sense in the continuity department. On that tour, even when they played older songs, they kept them in the new sound.

But at this show last night, first I was transported to a very bleak future where androids have been integrated seamlessly into our world (and some of us may even be androids). Images of life being wasted and cheap were evident…Then unfortunately when Gary went to the new sound, I was sent to a vampire club with deep pounding dance beats and industrial metal guitars. This transition took me out of the trance that The Pleasure Principle had created. I spoke with a friend today who had seen the show and she disagreed, arguing that both styles fit together well for her. Always a reminder that music is subjective and much more important to the listener than the critic.

When they started my personal fave Down In The Park, it was in the new sound but it worked anyway because that song is just so darn good! The audience ate it up. Then it was back to Jagged for three tracks: bye-bye Zom Zoms, hello Fang Club.

Gary Numan has done so much for the world of electronic music. His first three records (first two with Tubeway Army) are all amazing.  I lived in New York for a long time and the goth, electronic bands I saw all played to backing tracks, so it’s excepted in their community (they’re like drum loops I guess). And Gary was definitely singing to tracks of his own voice on some songs. He was in there somewhere and that’s part of his show, so deal with it.

One of the things I love about Gary Numan (take note new bands!): He doesn’t talk. He said thank you three times during the entire set, and not really anything else. Musicians rarely have anything better to say than what they are saying with their music. The band Gary has is very good (although the drummer seemed to be slightly out of time with his in-ear monitor click track on the first two songs). In order for there to be backing vocal tracks, etc., the band must play to a pre-set time signature which is way harder than it sounds.

My advice to Mr. Numan would be: if you are going to play a classic record then keep all the songs in that era so as not to throw off the vibe. Besides, there are so many tracks from that period to choose from!

Hearing The Pleasure Principle was worth the rest of the set feeling slightly disjointed (but still enjoyable). Gary Numan is a great performer. The only non-excusable offense was that there was no pyramid in evidence anywhere.

Whenever I think of  that iconic album cover, I think of a young Gary Numan with a detached expression; wearing his tight suit and eye liner, looking at the pyramid on his desk like it was a drug that was both needed and hated.

If you want to understand why people such as myself love Gary Numan and all you’ve ever heard is the song Cars, here is a list of essential material: Airplane, Metal, Complex, Films, M.E, Tracks, Observer, Engineers, Conversation, Down In The Park, Me I Disconnect From You, Are Friends Electric? Listen To The Sirens, My Shadow In Vain, Friends, Everyday I die, My Love Is A Liquid and Are You Real.

Now is that enough great songs to warrant his critical acclaim and loyal fan base?  ummm… yes; considering that most bands that attain comercial success have one or two songs that will stay with you over the years.

Thank you Gary Numan for playing the The Pleasure Principle. It was fun to travel backwards to my youth and forwards to your horrifying and cold vision of our possible future. To quote the amazing Mr. Numan from the song Conversation, “ These are not my tears, not my reflection. Am I a photo? I can’t remember.”

3.5 (out of 5)

J.S.L.

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BAD RELIGION – THE DISSENT OF MAN (Review)

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Bad Religion’s The Dissent Of Man is their four thousandth release. Okay maybe not that many (15); but I remember buying How Could Hell Be Any Worse on vinyl at Recycle Records (RIP) in 1982 (yes I had a green mohawk but not until 1984). It was an eye and ear opening experience, as I became a lifelong fan of this powerful, message-laden punk rock – and now just great alternative rock – band.

Like other great rock acts that refuse to budge too far from their comfort zones (outside of the 1983 prog experiment Into The Unknown), Bad Religion is at it again with catchy hooks, political commentary and adrenalin induced upbeat fun.

There have been different members since they started in 1979 but there has only ever been one voice, and that is the voice of Greg Graffin. Greg has an infectious, authentic, non-aloof, non-sarcastic delivery that makes you feel like you could sit down and have a nice chat with him – like you have known him forever.

One thing that I will always love about Bad Religion is that they were at the forefront of socially aware post punk that took hold in the 1980′s, replacing the ‘we don’t care’ attitude of the original 1970′s punk movement (outside of a few bands like The Clash). Bad Religion was also the first band that I remember adding three part harmonies into the punk scene. It really started on their 1986 release Suffer; and while it is a great record, it also started what I consider to be the ultimate death of punk rock.

On to 2010! Yes, the oozin’ ahs are a-plenty, and the political messages and the feelings of disenfranchisement are present. But much like the last few records, what is most present here are well crafted and – yes, even pop fortified, smart, fun songs. Bad Religion in my opinion is one of the true sounds of Southern California, and this record is a good time. I could see driving around in my convertible with the volume up, just like my parents would have done with The Beach Boys. Not to minimize their intent, but this is good music and it makes me feel good listening to it (maybe I’m supposed to think or something but ya know… I’m busy in my dinosaur brain with other stuff… like my  kids, etc.).

The Dissent Of Man blasts out at full speed with The Day The Earth Stalled, which (just like the good old days) clocks in at 1:27. This is followed by an Only Rain, which has a great ra-chunka guitar part that really captures the 80′s punk feel without losing the current production focus. We don’t slow down till track four’s Won’t Somebody, where Greg asks “Won’t somebody please come up with something cuz Jesus doesn’t seem to be impartially working, and all the others can barley stay in the running but everyone is still right here waiting.” I guess it’s sort of a ballad, and it is super catchy. If you like track one you will like this whole record, as it really never loses steam – even with the appearance of a rare love song, Cyanide, which has un uncanny Tom Petty feel. Coupled with the Bad Religion feel, this has a wonderful merging that leaves you wanting more.

For me, the one song that really got to me was Turn Your Back On Me, where the listener is asked for self preservation to turn away from the one that really is trying to help them. The great Greg Hetson of Circle Jerks fame is still banging out great riffs and is accompanied by the rest of Bad Religion (same guys for the past 12 years or so!) – Jay Bentley on bass, Brian Baker on guitar, Brooks Wackerman (real name?) on drums, and Brett Gurewitz on even more guitars! Produced again by Joe Barresi, Gurewitz, and Gaffin; with the full intent of having a crisp, clean, super-compressed sounds that is what people want in the I-Pod generation.

My good friend Seany “two pops” says this kind of production causes ear fatigue. I told him he causes ear fatigue. (Good comeback, no?) Anyway, all in all, another enjoyable release from the seminal So Cal punk/whatever band Bad Religion. Regardless of what they may have done in the past or their reluctance to change their sound, they are still relevant and incredibly cool.

4 (out of 5)

J.S.L.

Me circa 1982 in my first punk band Death Regiment. I had just bought my first Bad Religion record!

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