Helmet, Size Matters (Interscope)

Helmet - Size Matters Helmet
Size Matters
Interscope
By: Eric Greenwood

Chalk up another needless reunion as Paige Hamilton resurrects Helmet — his deafening early ‘90’s tour de force — with a new cast of assclowns, sporting embarrassing pedigrees like White Zombie and Anthrax. Technically, though, it’s not even really a reunion since Hamilton is the only original remaining member. Why bother? Does anyone still care?

When Helmet unleashed Strap It On onto the noise rock scene in late 1991 on the infamously raucous Amphetamine Reptile label, articulate metal was a fairly revolutionary means of expression. Helmet rocked succinctly, carefully eschewing showy heavy metal clichés like one leg on the amp guitar solos. Hamilton’s jazz-trained background helped him meld bizarre time signatures with anvil-heavy riffage, which reached a commercial and creative apex on its major label debut, Meantime, in early 1992. MTV airplay briefly garnered Helmet some mainstream exposure and band to watch status in the post-Nirvana fire, and Helmet consequently packed clubs that summer and fall.

1994’s Betty offered an even more bizarre musical landscape for Hamilton’s growling, disjointed vocal melodies but proved to be too complicated for mass audiences and barely even kept the faithful entertained. The gruff of Meantime took a backseat to experimental musical distractions that contained zero personality or panache. The de-tuned sledgehammer attack missed its mark by a long shot. And 1997’s Aftertaste left a bad one in everyone’s mouth, as Helmet sounded like a half-baked and utterly forgettable shadow of its former self.

Size Matters tries to recapture the glory days of Meantime, but it’s too mediocre to rise to the challenge. The melodies all blend together while the riffs rarely scare up so much as an eyebrow. Despite Hamilton’s grittiest vocals to date, Size Matters is inarguably watered-down and bland. Helmet's blueprint has been used so many times since the mid-'90s that it barely draws attention to itself in 2004. Plodding tempos, boring, over-compressed guitars, and a muddied sense of purpose leave Helmet destined for the cutout bin once again.

Newgenics, Every Girl In The World 7 Inch (Level Plane)

Newgenics - Every Girl In The World 7 Inch Newgenics
Every Girl In The World 7 Inch
Level Plane
By: Eric Greenwood

Newgenics is a Columbia, South Carolina quartet with massive punk and indie rock pedigrees under its belt, as its members hail from such underground diversions as In/Humanity, Guyana Punch Line, Marion, Damn The Sun and Martian Death Lyric. It's first single on Level Plane Records, “Every Girl in the World”, is an inverted blast of sexually charged irony, wherein lead singer Chris Bickel dusts off his singing voice for the first time in forever, leaving that notoriously guttural shriek in the dust. Bassist Craig Keeney drives the song with treble-charged hooks, while drummer Andrew Wallace showcases his penchant for acrobatics over straight beats. The guitars are shrill and sound like space-aged toys behind the propulsive bass tones, as blips of unidentifiable electronics scatter through the cracks. The flipside, “We're the Only Ones,” is a sinister, bass-driven anthem with an unruly, explosive chorus. It sounds like The Clash in the build-up verses, as Bickel deadpans his duplicitous lyrics. Keeney's bass line has a stark and lingering presence. Newgenics takes its cues from an amalgamation of influences, ranging from Devo to Gang of Four to Mission of Burma to the New Romantic Movement heralded by Duran Duran. But don't assume Newgenics to be a part of the current dance-punk trend. The band may borrow from its obvious 80's roots, but it forges its own path with self-deprecating humor, lascivious irony, and an undercurrent of aggression.

Ova Looven, 58:34 10:22 (Catune)

Ova Looven - 58:34   10:22 Ova Looven
58:34 10:22
Catune
By: Michael Jones

Antarctica’s breakup in 1999 was a crushing blow to the cult audience that worshipped and analyzed every note of the 104 minutes and 6 seconds of music the band recorded during their short but influential career. New recruits continue to be initiated, and this rabid fan base seeks out whatever information it can find, while holding out hope that a rare track or a hitherto undiscovered live show will be unearthed in some dusty vault.

Just months after Antarctica split, singer/guitarist Chris Donohue and drummer Glenn Maryansky went on to form Ova Looven with James Minor (guitarist for like-minded National Skyline) and keyboardist Steven DePalo, and self-released their debut album, 58:34 (named, like the two Antarctica releases, for the album’s length), in 2003. While the album did not go completely under-the-radar, many fans awaiting post-Antarctica projects were completely unaware of the record’s release.

58:34 easily endeared itself to Antarctica fans, while carving out its new fan base at the same time. Anyone expecting Donohue and Maryansky to follow in their former band’s footsteps were, well, right. Sort of. To wit: 58:34 begins right where Antarctica left off. That’s not metaphorical, either. I mean precisely where they left off: The album’s first song, “Power Windows,” a jaunty new wave number about extreme paranoia, uses the same synth patch in the intro as the last song on 81:03. This hook-laden song would not only make Grandpa Numan get out of his hovercraft wheelchair to dance with joy, but it also proves that Ova Looven is serious about taking music into the 21st Century.

The infectious “Invisible Triangle” is built around DePalo’s propulsive and amazingly arranged programming, which provides a stable but shape-shifting platform for Minor’s elegant guitar figure, which builds slowly over the course of a few measures. Donohue’s angular vocal phrasing is a modern update of the New Romantics, so much so that it’s not hard to imagine an alternate history where this song preempted the 80s-era British Invasion and set American bands up as the harbingers of the New Wave movement. “Sugar Rain” saunters along at a gently measured pace, lulling the listener with gentle guitar plucks, subtle electronic embellishments and soothing vocals. “All Gates Open” continues the bewitching spell with a hearty four-on-the-floor beat, bouncy bass line and a vocal melody so catchy you could, like, get herpes from it.

Chris Donohue’s voice is the aural center of Ova Looven, and all the instrumentation is locked in orbit around it. Whether recorded dry, multi-tracked, drenched in shimmering chorus or altered by a vocoder, his vocals are gorgeous and set the band apart from its contemporaries. Donohue shines brightest on the beautiful “Lust for Svirda”: His layered vocals are surrounded by delicate guitar chimes, empty-highway synth pads and Aphex Twin-esque snare rolls. “Puzzle Drip” contains Gregorian chant-like phrasing in the first verse that is marvelously executed, as are the backing tracks, which provide a bleak and lonely landscape for Donohue’s vocals, which, during the breakdown, sound not only exhausted but also downright world-weary. Attempted by any other singer, this trick would sound fey and pretentious. In Donohue’s capable hands, however, this brief moment is one of the most rewarding parts of the song.

While Ova Looven are masters of the New Wave-revisionist pop song, brevity isn’t really their forte: most of their songs are in excess of five minutes, some linger just below the ten-minute mark, and one, the epic (and perplexingly titled) “ee-19,” hovers right over thirteen minutes. DePalo again weaves multiple hooks, building them up, allowing them to play harmoniously with one another, and then breaks them down again at just the right times. Minor’s guitar is hypnotizing, and the drum programming anchors the song while introducing new variations every few measures. Donohue’s vocals, veiled behind a vocoder, are driving and instantly addictive. The song changes course around the nine-minute mark, slowly and blissfully unwinding from its own former, feverish pace. “Blood, Wine & Elevators,” the album’s darkest (and best) song, lays Minor’s gothic guitar riff (which would make Robert Smith turn green with envy under his white-face make-up) over a thick bass synth, while ghostly keyboards swell and fade over the 808 programming. Donohue’s vocals float hauntingly over the top. A masterpiece.

With Ova Looven currently in the studio preparing their anxiously-awaited second release, Japanese label Catune will be re-releasing their debut in early 2004, but with a new title: 58:34+10:22. What are the extra ten-and-a-half minutes? Bonus tracks, my friend. Catune is aware that the best reissues come with the coveted unreleased songs. Minimalist in execution, but high in emotional impact, “Sunrise” draws the listener in with drowsy bells, a tremolo guitar and the customary angelic vocals. “Digital Kiss” opens with Minor and DePalo’s sinister riffs slinking around one another, paving the way for Donohue’s robotic vocal effect (and quite cryptic lyrics) and some sleek drum programming. Both songs are instantly addictive, but lack the heft of the album tracks, so it’s easy to see why they were left off of the full-length. As bonus tracks, however, they provide a glimpse into the more experimental and playful side of the band, and, as such, justify re-purchasing the album.

Batter The Drag, Unfathomable Depths (Self-released)

Batter The Drag - Unfathomable Depths Batter The Drag
Unfathomable Depths
Self-released
By: Eric Greenwood

Batter The Drag's energy is contagious. Each song on this Mesa, Arizona quartet's debut EP, Unfathomable Depths, prickles with dynamism and controlled aggression. The cerebral guitar work serves as the backdrop for Ryan Richardson's husky, guttural voice. Wisely avoiding the trappings of typical emo, Batter The Drag opts instead for the explosive power of bands like Drive Like Jehu with Polvo's level of sophistication. Richardson's anti-whine sounds muscular and sinister, especially when he pushes to the point where it crackles and breaks apart.

The wiry, complicated guitar interplay between Richardson and Jeff Ruoss on the opener, "Bezel", is staggering in the way it makes intricate changes sound so seamless. "Firewater Allergy" is just as potent in its explosiveness. Batter The Drag's dynamic acrobatics impress at every turn. "L" is busting at the seams with arpeggiated post-rock showmanship on the guitar, while the opening basswork on "Douse The Edisons" is equally stylish. Such adept musicianship is rare at this level. Batter The Drag rocks with precision and a testosterone overload. Potential for greatness looms large over this EP.

Schooner, You Forgot About Your Heart (Pox World Empire)

Schooner - You Forgot About Your Heart Schooner
You Forgot About Your Heart
Pox World Empire
By: Eric Greenwood

With a yelping aggression and a jangly indie pop flair, Schooner blasts out of the gate sounding like an odd cross between Brother Danielson and Black Francis. On "My Friend's Band", lead singer Reid Johnson sounds hopped up on speed, while his sister, keyboardist Kathryn Johnson, provides subtle and languid "ooh's" and "aah's" in the background. "Days Under Cover" quickly cuts back the pace to a creepy waltz beat, wherein Johnson croons amidst a room fool of feedback and reverb. The mood shift is staggering, but the effect is engaging and lovely.

Schooner's eight-song debut, You Forgot About Your Heart, on Pox World Empire Records, is a dizzying collection of anxious, urgent pop, languid, off-kilter ballads, and noisy, feedback-drenched hooks. "Trains And Parades" is a bouncy, mid-tempo bop, replete with prominent organs and breezy acoustic guitar. The two-chord repetitive drone of tracks like "This Machine Is Running Out" tires quickly as compared to the frantic urgency of the opener, "My Friend's Band", proving that some bands just sound better when they rock.

Q And Not U, Power (Dischord)

Q And Not U - Power Q And Not U
Power
Dischord
By: Eric Greenwood

Q and Not U hinted at the creative growth spurt evident on its new full-length, Power, in the opening moments of its sophomore release, Different Damage, on the song “Soft Pyramids.” The angry post-punk bleating of its Discord debut, No Kill No Beep Beep, had morphed into a stranger, more melodic beast, trading the razor-lined guitars for buoyant layers of vocals and propulsive polyrhythms.

Even more experimental in its minimal approach, Q and Not U practically abandons the guitar altogether in favor of synthesizers and percolating, disco-flavored rhythms. Luckily, the band doesn't cave into the dance-punk trend without expanding upon its current ubiquity with skillful songwriting and risky avoidance of testosterone.

The powerful urgency of No Kill No Beep Beep doesn't have a place in Q and Not U's envelope-pushing mindset these days, although it does retain that brainy sense of self-obsessed paranoia it has channeled from the beginning. The falsetto chant of the opener, "Wonderful People", will have old fans scratching their heads, but the song's infectious, Chic-inspired guitar twitches disallow any urges to abandon ship.

Even without hiding behind serrated guitars and charging rhythms, Q and Not U explores a kinetic dynamism with one foot still loosely connected to punk's ever-expansive garden.

Duran Duran, Astronaut (Epic)

Duran Duran - Astronaut Duran Duran
Astronaut
Epic
By: Eric Greenwood

Expectations for a Duran Duran reunion with all five original members are admittedly low- those classic early albums, Rio and Seven and the Ragged Tiger, notwithstanding. It has been 21 years, which was more than enough time for the remaining members who soldiered on to have dragged the name into a hole so deep that no reunion, no matter how good, could possibly repair.

Even the best musicians lose touch not only with reality but also with their songwriting craft. After decades of spotlights and spoiled rock star egomania, things invariably fall apart. It's like gravity. Everyone falls victim at some point. There are no winners in the game of aging, and that goes double for musicians. For anyone to think Duran Duran – all members of which are in their early to mid-40's – would be exempt from the 'past its prime' syndrome is utterly deluded.

Astronaut is more than Duran Duran's comeback album. It's a make or break, do or die record. For every platinum album, overplayed video, banged elite model, or sold out tour, there have been twice as many colossal failures and deadly miscalculations. In fact, Duran Duran's career post-Live Aid (the last time the original line-up played live before the split) has been riddled with so much commercial embarrassment that even the strongest egos would have a hard time bouncing back.

Reunions of this nature are impossible to ignore. It's a massive case of rubbernecking. Everyone slows down to see how bad the damage is and then drives away. Longtime fans – mostly overweight women in their mid-to late 30's – have been wetting themselves with glee since the announcement that the original band would reform. However, those fans grounded in reality held their excitement in check, realizing that, at this point, it may be too little too late.

Even now Simon LeBon has one of the best voices in pop music, though it's a tad more nasal than it used to be. All of his dramatic tendencies aside, the man can belt out a tune like few others. He's in an upper echelon with Bono and Sting, vocally. He's always sounded frightened and in a state of emergency when he hits a chorus, and no one sounds quite like him. Lyrically, LeBon has consistently catered to your inner poetic license, mixing utter nonsense with the macabre and creating the perfect foundation for teenage imaginations to run wild.

Unfortunately, on Astronaut he cuts back on the melodramatic mystique in favor of bland clichés. His patented cadence is instantly recognizable, though, as he still has an ear for sticky melodies. His delivery is less urgent than in his heyday, but it still can make the tiny hairs on your neck stand up when he hits certain notes. Too bad he's devolved so much as a lyricist.

Musically, Astronaut covers an impressive gamut of styles from disco funk to stadium rock to dance-floor pop. Duran Duran has never shied away from knicking the best bits of other people's designs (Chic, Bowie) and fusing them into their own, but it's hard to sound vital and current when your band helped define an era two decades past. A 21-year absence is multiple lifetimes in pop music. Your momentum is likely irretrievable, and it's hard to be viewed without a blanket of nostalgia covering your progress.

Astronaut kicks off with 'let's get our career back on track', adult-contemporary, radio-friendly pap. Balls to the fans. "Reach Up For The Sunrise" is devastatingly awful. Catchy, yes. Good, no. LeBon drops the lyrical equivalent of dirty diapers all over the listener: "Reach up for the sunrise/put your hands in to the big sky", which causes the requisite dry heaving. An early version of the song appeared on the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy soundtrack, which is where it should have stayed to whither in all its gaudy shame.

"Want You More" follows and is easily the best song on Astronaut. The Faint would kill to have written something this urgent and catchy. Why isn't this the single? Modern rock stations might have actually played it. Lyrically, it's iffy, but LeBon's chorus is undeniable. Andy Taylor's machinated guitars buttress Nick Rhode's carousel of synthetic sound effects. It truly sounds modern and it's a whirlwind of retro-goodness, proving Duran Duran can still write frighteningly good pop music when it gets its head out of its own ass.

The title track is pure infectious pop thanks to Andy Taylor's quick acoustic fretwork. LeBon moves fluidly over the jerky rhythms. He's a seasoned front man, and he knows how to drive a tune. If only he had something to write about. "What Happens Tomorrow" is chock full of arena-rock hooks and perfect pop sensibilities, but the sentiment is so mundane it's hard to invest anything emotionally: "We’ve got to believe/it’ll be alright in the end/you’ve got to believe/it’ll be alright my friend." Ack.

Being former teen heartthrobs is an awkward position for a band that wants to be taken seriously all of a sudden. Apparently, MTV won't touch anything by any artist over 19, so being in your mid-40's is an automatic death knell, even if you did help invent the channel. Duran Duran seems unfazed, however. And with as much excitement as it generated last year for its sold out reunion tour, MTV might not even be a necessary tool anymore- what with the internet and all. Incidentally, there are more than 50,000 websites devoted to Duran Duran.

Astronaut doesn't come close to ranking with the music that made the band world famous, but it has moments that make it easy to remember why the band rode such a wave to begin with.