Justify Your Shitty Taste: Helmet’s “Size Matters”

Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today’s submission: Daniel Lukes shoves Andrew Bonazelli to the sideline for the darlin’ task of defending Helmet’s Size Matters.
It’s great to see this column finally happening: I remember drunkenly bigging up this very
album to Albert Mudrian at the Roadrunner 25th Anniversary Party in NYC in 2005, and us
talking about the aesthetic of the poorly-received-yet-there’s-just-something-awesome-about-it comeback album. My personal philosophy is that I’d rather the existence of a mediocre album by a band I love than nothing at all: there’s always going to be something on it that rekindles that former passion, and you can always not listen if you’re going to be such a fussy little perfectionist about it. Fortunately for Helmet fans, Size Matters is anything but mediocre. In fact, it’s kind of up there with their best work. Hear me out:

People break up, bands break up. And like most ’90s alt-rock bands, Helmet broke up, in 1998, when Aftertaste, despite its gestures towards pop of the catchiest kind, sort of showed that they weren’t really going to be the next Green Day any time soon. Instead of jumping right back into the spotlight with a lame-o supergroup, Helmet mainman Page Hamilton went off to cultivate his jazz, soundtrack, instrumental and session work chops, most notably playing live with David Bowie and doing stuff with Trent Reznor’s aborted Tapeworm (which maybe would have been a lame-o supergroup had it ever gone public). In 2002 he formed Gandhi with some East Coast cats, but it would finally be as “Helmet” that he’d make a full-fledged return to the scene, without either bassist Henry Bogdan or drummer John Stanier choosing to be on board. Those are the type of guys that let sleeping dogs lie: Hamilton, on the other hand, is the type to poke ’em.
sm cover
Then there was Winona Ryder, who according to zimbio.com, Hamilton dated for under a year in 2003, and whom arguably (shall we say “allegedly”? Please put “allegedly” in front of or next to every further mention of Ryder here) is the subject of Hamilton’s lyrical musings on Size Matters (2004). In fact we can go so far as to say Winona’s loss is our gain. A cynic might think he almost did this deliberately to have something to write about again. And pay off it does: Size Matters is one hell of a breakup album, full of all that alonetime stuff where you just want to kill the other person. Of course, you don’t actually want to kill them, but the fantasy helps you sleep nights for a while, so to speak. Don’t look at me: this is after all what keeps death metal bands in business.

With Aftertaste, Hamilton had stopped speaking in Buzzosbornesque riddles, and on Size Matters, where he really has a topic he cares to speak about, Hamilton’s lyrical vision is loud, clear and all about the sneer: epithets and choice insults for his ex (allegedly!) and the other guy fly right at ya, whether delivered in a wounded howl or deadpan drawl. Poor Hamilton—you want to reach through the shouting and riffing and give him a hug sometimes.

Size Matters is massive. It’s not a massiveness that the record can sustain throughout (soft is a mode Helmet have never convincingly fully embraced, yet even that changes here), but while it lasts, it gives exactly what you want(ed). The insanely crisp production job is one of the best things about this record. Freshly ex-NIN man Charlie Clouser (who also has three songwriting credits), Jay Baumgardner (Orgy, Coal Chamber), Chris Traynor on bass and Interscope money establish this album as de facto consolation prize for the non-materialization of Tapeworm (also supposed to feature Maynard James Keenan, Phil Anselmo, Tommy Victor and Danny Lohner, among others) in tandem with the Underworld soundtrack, which hosted Hamilton’s return-from-exile in the form of “Throwing Punches,” a song which has never been forgiven for following Puscifer’s slinky lounge-club-in-hell debut (“Rev. 22:20”) with such ham-fisted aggression and terrifying midlife-crisis howl (the song’s new version included on Size Matters offered no discernible improvement).

Clouser’s smidgen of industrialism and electronic meticulous know-how goes a really long way here: Size Matters snaps, crackles and pops with a riveting sense of precision and clarity, chasing out for once the murkiness that was always part of Helmet’s sound. Kind of makes you wonder what Bowie, Clouser and Hamilton could have come up with, if Bowie had known what to do with him: at the very least perhaps something with a little more balls than Bowie’s last bunch of anodyne, forgettable records (speaking of which, where is Outside Vol. 2?).

Songwise, Size Matters takes chances and pays off most of the time, even though occasionally the poppy stuff is a little hard to stomach for too long. “See You Dead” is QOTSA’s “No One Knows,” which, instead of stumbling around the desert on drugs, puts on body armor and decides to turn up at your ex’s door, with an axe. The trademark Helmet staccato repetition-compulsion here is deftly countered by a lyrical stance that thrillingly switches from the mundane (“nice to see you”) to the psychotic (“in two pieces”). Oh Page.

Positively seething with anger and rage and hatred and resentment and feeling small (in the groin area), Hamilton wants and gets to vent here, gloriously. It may not be politically correct to say it, but it’s the nu-metallish bullishness that partly makes this album so awesome, to me. Grinding, slow-burning opener “Smart,” with its tired and cynical attempt to tempt a female interlocutor with a one-night stand by means of self-defeating and whiny sarcasm (“I know that you’re smart, you mentioned it before”), immediately came across to me at first listen as a piss-take of Limp Bizkit (“just boys in here and they’re soft”). In fact, this album like no Helmet other presents a preoccupation with pasty-faced masculinity that expresses itself as angry weakness: he’s stuck on his failure and needs to “work through it” by screaming, insulting and fantasizing about death: now when Hamilton talks about cars they’re not driving nowhere fast, but crashing and going off the road (“Crashing Foreign Cars,” “Speak and Spell”). Note: remember Hamilton spent some time briefly helping out Limp Bizkit on their post-Borland album (while Rivers Cuomo was writing songs for Crazy Town: ah, the memories of the butt-end of nu-metal). In a way, Size Matters brings to mind a sound and era that never was, and represents one of the few successful self-aware commentaries on nu-metal, a.k.a. rock music as recurring dick joke.

Sonically, Size Matters offered groove central in a timeframe in which metal had decided to turn its back on groove, embrace prog again and chase after Iron Maiden galloping off towards the hills. Exodus/White/Rob Zombie man John Tempesta’s drumming really fit the bill here. It’s not Stanier and his classic imprint, but Tempesta’s jittery yet colossal, intricate yet metronomic poundings unerringly serve to impress the feeling that this record knows exactly what it’s doing. The drums are and sound massive, and are one of the best things on here, allowing Hamilton’s riffage to bludgeon, breathe, shred, weave and take chances. The album does sag in the middle under the weight of an ambition which remains in part unfulfilled: “Drug Lord” and “Enemies” are the sorts of grunge misfires it’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of from Helmet before over the years (put it this way: they’re no “Speechless”), though the anti-solo on the former is still pretty awesome. But c’mon, Helmet have never really been an “album” band: you want them in short, mono-riffic doses; and this album has enough gems to make you totally glad it happened.

“Unwound,” by contrast, is an all-time personal favorite of mine, and kind of a sequel to “It’s Easy to Get Bored”: it starts off sort of Quicksand-y, then rolls along on its grungy way, almost recalling Helmet offshoot Handsome, culminating in the swelling and chilling crescendo of “I feel sick, when you’re near, I don’t remember why we’re here.” What we are offered is a picture of the pinnacle of Western civilization as a couple in Hollywood bored of each other’s company and wishing to be anywhere else on Earth. The anti-ex screed (is Darren Aronofsky a fan? Ryder’s face-stabbing scene in Black Swan could be straight out of Size Matters) continues to the very end: “Everybody Loves You” parses the hate-ode to a prima donna to some lurching bluesy AmRep-style guitar work and Hamilton’s voice pushed almost to the breaking point, whereas “Speak and Spell” takes Meantime-style staggerings and shows there was always room in the Helmet sound for melody (and hating on the new guy): “I want to know he’s dull, and he’s miserable / I want to know that he can stand an insult,” Hamilton wails dryly. “Last Breath” closes the album in invigorating and anthemic style: “Your last breath on Earth is all I can take” has got to be one of the most vicious, self-wound-licking/comforting lyrics ever: nothing less than imagining your last breath will get me through this moment. When I listen to it, I imagine Hamilton playing his guitar and singing on a planet out there alone in space.

Like we all do, Page Hamilton moved on: into the dire drop in quality that was Monochrome (2006), in his case. Surrounded not by Interscope money, ex-NIN and Zombie men, but random new guys Wharton Tiers (who recorded Strap It On and Meantime) and Kevin Lyman, Monochrome reiterated the hopelessness of return-to-roots maneuvers (please bands, don’t do it). This year’s Seeing Eye Dog (which features artwork even more appalling than Size Matters) and its trippy ambient-rock explorations, however, offers hope and makes me eager to hear more Hamilton music in the future. Though maybe it’s finally time to hang up the Helmet name: Size Matters pulled it off, just, but ever since then, it’s been diminishing returns on the Helmet brand. Do your Meantime tour and that’s it, please. Either way, for many Helmet fans, Size Matters was not only a more cohesive and confident return from the break-up than some of their contemporaries (looking at you, Prong, and the aforementioned lame-o supergroups), but also offered some killer live shows with Frank Bello on bass. It was and is a natural sequel to Aftertaste and a valiant fuck-you to the emo foppishness and Maidenesque fret-wankery that was invading metal at the time, despite it sharing emo’s preoccupation about women ruining your life. At least it wasn’t ashamed to make its mark bluntly; unfashionably perhaps, but also endowed with seductive bite, lasting wit and enduring appeal six years on.

1. “Smart”
2. “Crashing Foreign Cars”
3. “See You Dead”
4. “Drug Lord”
5. “Enemies”
6. “Unwound”
7. “Everybody Loves You”
8. “Surgery”
9. “Speak and Spell”
10. “Throwing Punches”
11. “Last Breath”