Sound — 6
Helmet. You know, that thing your mother told you to wear into the moshpit. Fittingly, Helmet is also the name of an alternative metal band from New York that has been stirring moshpits since 1989. They got their big break in the early 1990s when Interscope signed them to a luxurious record deal. Helmet's biggest commercial success was their first album with Interscope, "Meantime," which went gold in the US despite only initially charting at #67 on the Billboard 200.
Afterward, the band's albums did not sell nearly as well. In 1998, the band's three remaining original members broke up. Fast forward to 2004 and lead guitarist/vocalist Page Hamilton restarted the band without any of the other original members. Aside from being the only original member, Hamilton has also been the only consistent member of the band since it broke up in 1998. "Dead to the World" is Helmet's first album since 2010's "Seeing Eye Dog."
One of the first things that struck me when going through Helmet's catalog was the production (a lot of "St. Anger" snare drums). Popular in the '90s with the grunge movement, the thin, lax production that characterized early Helmet albums has not made it through to 2016. However, there is still a rougher feel. The guitars are mixed hard right and hard left. There's no reverb on the vocals (no luscious echoes). The drums don't feel boomy á la John Bonham.
The production gives the album a punk feel, which is further accentuated by the guitars, which play consistent chords like a punk band would. But here there is an important difference. Hamilton doesn't just play power chords. He uses more complex chords that sound more dissonant. This is the characteristic Helmet sound that earned their music the moniker "smart rock."
The dissonant sound, a sort of clash and crash of guitars which usually comes at the end of a verse, contrasts with the more conventional power chord sound of the verses and choruses. In effect, Helmet uses dissonance to make something sound dramatically different, instead of scary like Black Sabbath would do or harsh like many modern metal bands would do.
Though Hamilton is the lead guitarist in Helmet, he is much better when he plays like a guitarist. His riffs are decent but his guitar solos are not. Hamilton uses a sloppy style to perform his solos, which can work (see Jimmy Page and many blues guitarists) but really doesn't here. The guitar solo rhythms, aside from being sloppy, are also incoherent; it's hard to tell what the point is when Hamilton goes out of time.
The solo melodies aren't all too melodic and they don't seem to follow any set scales or patterns. Maybe you could call it abstract art, but it's just not easy to tell what the point is behind all of it (maybe that is the point?).
Lyrics — 6
I never realized how important reverb was until I heard the vocals on this album. It's something that I have taken for granted because almost everyone uses it. Reverb plays a role in making vocals sound like singing instead of talking. I don't think you can put all the blame on one production decision, but Page Hamilton's vocals sound like talking. Reverb is especially necessary for the vocals because they are the most melodic part of the album. Even with solid harmonies, the vocals lack a little push. They sound predictably flat. None of this should take away from Page Hamilton's ability to craft catchy choruses with ease. None of them are spectacular, but all of them are solid. These choruses carry the album.
The lyrics are similarly solid, though sometimes they can come off as immature. Repeating "shut the fuck up" like a ten-year-old might have some sort of powerful symbolic meaning, but it sure doesn't sound good.
Overall Impression — 6
The best song is the one where Hamilton lets up on his guitar and voice. "Green Shirt" is a great song on its own, not in comparison to the rest of the album. It's kind of catchy and Hamilton sounds really down to Earth with the way he sort of flicks syllables out of his mouth. The drums are even kind of catchy. In addition, it provides a reprieve to the high octane, high stress metal that characterizes the rest of the album. On an album of average metal songs, this light, laid back tune is a real surprise and a pleasant one at that.
Overall, the album is average but there are a number of shortfalls that could easily be corrected and make the album much better than where it is now.