Bands of the grunge era that have soldiered on, years past their top hits or landmark albums, are an interesting beast. While I suppose it’s ultimately similar to bands of an era doing the same – albums eventually lapse into a range of familiarity with slight evolutions, making for a sound that core fans, generally keeping the group alive, will recognize / appreciate while also allowing for some relative creativity – that 90s music seems so tied to anger and angst puts such long-running bands in a spot where they kind of have to choose if they’re going to grow up or keep singing and yelling about the same things with the same, throaty shout for years to come. Yes, social malaise and relationships and eff the government will never go out of style as topics, but theoretically our understanding of these things expands.
This all seems like buildup to me either praising Helmet’s Dead to the World 2016 album as a step in a great direction, or, given the rating… perhaps marking it as ultimately staid. While it’s not true that Page Hamilton is raging against the exact same things as back in the early 90s, the latter is probably still the final verdict on the disc, which doesn’t necessarily add anything to what the group has done post-Aftermath, although it is a very balanced set of tracks that covers a good range of what they can do: hefty, visceral rockers; more laid-back grooves; some light experimentation via use of noise or ambience; and occasional Helmet versions of pop songs. Helmet has done their due diligence over the years in trying to expand their aural palette as such, but again, I feel like we hit most of that by Aftertaste, and the reunion years have kind of been returning to a comfort zone of sounds: Dead to the World is very recognizably Helmet, all throughout.
Page’s production has tended to carve off edges on his music, inadvertently or not gearing it up for radio play, which tends to render some of the nuance and interesting timings tracks employ and use as less obvious; as such, this album starts off with quite a rush of great tracks, but begins to feel very streamlined thereafter, even if each song, individually, is pretty solid. And Hamilton’s lyrics – always somewhat plug and play angst – have the slight taint of old-man observations here and there; another value that keeps the album from breaking down any new walls.
So while maybe not earning new fans by this point, Dead to the World is appreciably polished alt-metal, performed with much precision to sound quite exactly like a very best-of version of Helmet, which isn’t a bad deal at all.