For the first of seven nights of gigs in the thirteen days, it was to a regular haunt once again, the Electric Ballroom, for a night of alternative rock.
Unlike so many gigs of late, for once the support act was actually relatively appropriate, a band that had clearly been influenced by the headliners. I didn’t catch all of Fighting With Wire‘s set, but I was impressed by what I heard. Another Ulster-based alt-rock act that provide a great show, they aren’t quite in the same league as And So I Watch You From Afar‘s energetic post-metal, but their bass-heavy songs have a nice crunch to them, and some cracking tunes. Quite how I’ve managed not to come across this band before me is now puzzling me.
The night belonged to Helmet, though, and with the broad makeup of the crowd consisting of a lot of thirty-somethings, this was hardly surprising. And for Page Hamilton and band, this was something of a celebration of what Helmet were, as opposed to what they are. Ostensibly this tour is to mark twenty years (!) since the release of their landmark album Meantime, perhaps one of the most unlikely multi-million selling records of recent times.
In fact, Helmet were a strange choice to be a band at the height of a bidding war early in their career in the first place. Harsh and abrasive (the word “dry” always seemed to sum up their sound nicely to me) rock, with a heavy emphasis on rhythm, they were hardly writing chart hits. But then, that alternative rock boom of the early nineties, which got so many bands unexpected success (and a good few failures, too), really does feel like a different world now, one where bands like Helmet would barely get any airtime anywhere, aside from being linked to online, or being played on Youtube, or Spotify, or wherever.
That aside, Meantime remains a fabulous album. And kudos to Helmet for not just playing the thing in order, with a few other songs tacked on – looking at the setlists for the tour, each night has been different, and this night, we got a few songs to warm us up, before they went through Meantime backwards. Which worked well, of course, seeing as even now the album is still a bit front-loaded.
It also meant that the newest song of the night, at least that I could remember, was early on. It’s Easy To Get Bored was the only song aired, that I recall, from Aftertaste, an album I’ve always rather liked, and wisely perhaps the band chose to ignore anything newer than that. And early on at least, it seemed that the band were in an incredible hurry, with barely a break between songs and next-to-no interaction with the crowd – it took until halfway through Meantime, before Page seemed to relax and started bantering with the crowd.
All of that buildup seemed to work well, too, as the second half of Meantime sounded utterly immense. As I’ve already noted, I’ve always felt the album was a little front-loaded, and so it actually felt like a finale as the best-known tracks from the album were rolled out. Give It sounded great, the way it winds up before exploding into a fury was perfect for a live environment, while the title(ish!) track was, from the various heckles, what everyone wanted to hear, and was delivered with a passion that some other songs perhaps lacked.
That wasn’t it, though, as a lengthy encore was then provided, looking at the albums so far ignored. But first, we got something of an apology – introducing Speechless, apparently last time it was played in London, it wasn’t great, so Page wanted to make up for it. He certainly did that, but here Wilma’s Rainbow lost it’s more melodic touches in the mix, and for me was the one low point of the set. Real oldie Blacktop (apparently about crack) had a grimy, ugly feel, which seemed appropriate to the subject matter, and as that track finished, there was no let-up as the band blitzed into a final run through Milquetoast.
Which was a great way to finish things, and as the crowd morphed into an enormous moshpit, it would seem that they agreed too. Perhaps one of the band’s best-known tracks, thanks to it’s appearance on The Crow Soundtack, and it is definitely the one track I wanted to hear in addition to the album we were here for.
As a celebration of the past, this was a fantastic gig. But as a sign of where Helmet are now, I couldn’t help but think that there isn’t a lot left to go forward with. The band haven’t, in all honesty, released a truly great album since before they split up the first time around, and effectively ignoring the newer material on this occasion only made that all the more obvious here. Still, I got to see one of the best metal bands of the 90s, dishing up most of their best songs. Which is what I paid for, so I can hardly complain, right?