The first few times I listened to "Aftertaste", Helmet’s long-awaited new album, I was disappointed, almost angry in fact. I am a huge Helmet fan, and I ‘ve been waiting for this record for well over two years now. "Aftertaste" it is a very strong record by ordinary standards, but Helmet fans such as myself tend to expect nothing but perfection from Page Hamilton, the band’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter. And although it fails to achieve the intensity of "Meantime" and "Betty", Helmet’s two previous albums, their new direction might actually be just what they need to open themselves up to a wider audience while keeping their core base of fans.

Helmet has always been a foursome, but they have reduced their number to three on this record. The same basic lineup of Page Hamilton (vocals and guitar), Henry Bogdan (bass), and John Stanier (drums) remains intact, but the second guitarist has been dropped from the group’s structure. There have always been rumors that the second guitarists grew tired of Page’s demanding, perfectionistic expectations and rigid control of the studio recordings and live shows. Peter Mengede (guitar) originally filled the fourth slot, but he was replaced by Rob Echeverria on "Betty", who left Helmet to join Biohazard after the last tour. Chris Traynor of Orange 9mm is credited with some guitar work on Aftertaste and is rumored to have played some live shows with the band before the album was released, but the current touring lineup includes only the three mainstays.

Page, a whose perfectionistic tendencies have always been evident in the absolute precision of Helmet’s recordings and live performances, has been tinkering with the tracks on this record for the last year and a half. Original reports had the original tracks for this record finished in December of 1995 and scheduled for a spring 96 release. But spring and summer both passed without a new record. Finally in late summer a September 15 release date was added to the official schedules that the record stores use. On that date, however, the album mysteriously failed to appear. A few weeks later word got around that Page had suddenly decided that he was unhappy with the final mix and wanted to redo it. It was tentatively scheduled for January 97, but ended up not coming out until March 18, more than two and a half years after their previous record.

This isn’t the kind of record I would have expected after a two and half year delay, but it’s still pretty damn good. Like most Helmet records, it starts strong and just gets more aggressive. "Pure", the opening track, begins with a low guitar drone that bursts into one of Helmet’s trademark repetitive chord riffs. The second track, "Renovation", is possibly Helmet’s most radio friendly track ever, an almost upbeat song that tears across the landscape with the glee of a maniac in a stolen Hummer. "Exactly What You Wanted", the third track and first single, follows "Renovation", and is probably the most prototypical Helmet song on the album; verses that brim with barely controlled fury and spill over into naked aggression when the chorus hits.

The lyrics may in fact be the element that prevents this record from being equal with its two predecessors. On Helmet’s previous albums the anger in the lyrics has been very nonspecific, directed more at the existential pain that is inherent in life than at any particular person or thing. But on "Aftertaste", the lyrics are remarkably uniform and uncharacteristically directed at specific targets. In this case those target are all the people who manipulate others with false pretences and appearances—people who are so universally disliked that they are almost too easy to take artistic shots at, especially in the completely non-subtle way that these lyrics do. Lines like “You’re always vocal, affecting passion/Wholesale opinions will stay in fashion” and “You’re everything you want to be/Accomplished, gracious and great company” are typical of the albums bitter, sarcastic sentiments.

Helmet’s music on this album remains as powerful as ever, even if it has been slicked up a little to make it more palatable to an MTV audience accustomed to Green Day. In the end, though, its lyrics don’t seem to be about anything but Page’s dislike of other people. Whereas his previous efforts struck more universal chords, examining the more generalized pain of existence, Aftertaste is weakened by its inability to do anything but spin its wheels in a pointless mudpuddle of hate and bitterness. This is still a very good record, one that longtime Helmet fans will definitely want to pick up, and even worth a listen from non-listeners. It just doesn’t quite measured up to the high standards that the band set for itself on its previous two releases.

Chris Pace

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