Not Just the Ticket — #63, Helmet, May 8, 1993

Helmet, UCI

Then-current album: Meantime

Opening acts: The Jesus Lizard, Therapy?

Back of ticket ad: “From a friend at UEI — United Education Institute” Thanks, friend.

Damn this one is really faded and browning, I had to double check on this one a bit. Nothing like a big hole punch too.

So anyway this show was at UC Irvine, and was also one of my first show reviews. Memories.

I’ve idly mentioned my UCI newspaper work here and there in past entries, while I started to do some of my first very, very random fanzine reviews around this time as well (VERY random — I don’t remember the names of most of the publications I wrote for though I seem to have a few copies around still). I think, though, up to this point I hadn’t done anything like a formal concert review. I’d read a few, of course, to put it very mildly. But as part of my getting to grips with things I knew I should at least do some stories here and there about shows I’d seen.

Part of the learning curve this involved had to do with the art of the show preview as opposed to the show review. I’d probably done a few previews at this point, since Jen V. was always eager to have coverage of upcoming pub shows she was booking and since most of the bands she was booking were worth the talking about, thus the Green Day preview story mentioned a couple of entries back. I don’t think anyone got a hold of me with info about previewing this one, or more accurately, I don’t think I made much of an effort to try and figure out who I was supposed to contact. I know I should have had the Interscope information at this point but perhaps not (I definitely had it the following year but that’s another story; suffice to say that getting a FedEx package with a promo copy of The Downward Spiral just before its formal release was one of those perfect moments — I’m sure the rave on alt.music.alternative I posted that evening is out there somewhere).

Of course, I should talk a bit about the bands too. Therapy? I’d already seen and enjoyed and was looking forward to seeing again. The Jesus Lizard were one of those groups I was starting to get a handle on just enough — their split single with Nirvana had either come out or was about to, but they’d already made enough of a name for themselves with previous releases, the whole Scratch Acid background, basically everything that was their whole ‘take back to America what the Birthday Party had taken from it and then make it even more of a crazed mess’ aesthetic. So I was intrigued if not slavering at the bit.

Which left Helmet as the headliners. I actually read something the other day about how there’s a new Helmet album due out and I admit my main reaction was “Why?” Which is a bit cruel, seeing as there are a lot of bands I love that prompt similar responses from people when they learn about new forthcoming albums and all. If Page Hamilton wants to keep rocking, let him do so.

But back to 1993, or more aptly 1992. Hamilton and Helmet had already been kicking around by then; in fact I would have heard of him more via Band of Susans first, though I became a fan of that truly underappreciated group after he had already left to fire up Helmet in turn. (More on Band of Susans later, and in a much different blog project, but I’ll get to that.) I remember hearing first about them and Amphetamine Reptile via KLA but only in the vague sense, though I do recall that there was a bit of incredulity going around that they had been signed by Interscope for some ungodly amount. This was, if I have my dates correct, shortly after Nevermind had made everyone go “Huh? What?” and start chasing dollar signs, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Seeing the rosters of so many labels get signed to so many bigger labels almost immediately was…instructive. In good and bad ways.

I ended up getting Meantime pretty much right when it came out, more out of a sense of ‘well it’s supposed to be important’ than anything else, and I remember feeling like it was just too monochromatic. I might still think that, I don’t know, but the only two songs that I can remember just like that are “In the Meantime” itself, mostly because it was the opener, and, probably inevitably, “Unsung,” the single and the hit from the album as such. Deservedly so, it’s almost totally different from the rest of the album, with the feedback all compressed and actual space in the song. In fact over time I’ve figured it to be pretty much an example of nu-metal avant la lettre, all white noise blur and beats, though with Hamilton’s declamatory demi-croon in place of Fred Durst, for which we’re all grateful. Well, I am.

So I approached the show with a certain amount of…not trepidation, more “Well, we’ll see.” Promo tickets having been secured for myself and a newspaper photographer, we met up at the office and did the short walk across campus to Crawford Hall, the first time I’d been in that location and the first of what would prove to be a series of shows I’d be seeing there over the course of the following few years. I’d missed the Alice in Chains and Fishbone shows there earlier in the academic year but what can you do, and you have to start somewhere. The crowd was pretty packed into the hall, an open floor gymnasium style setup with seats up on side of the room and the stage opposite it, standard enough but pretty characterless in general.

Exact memories from this show are mixed. I actually remember Therapy?’s set most of all, thanks to being up front and knowing a little of what to expect. One nice change from the show the previous year was that the band were more engaged and energetic from the start, Andy Cairns with a few wicked grins on his face and saying some welcoming remarks and other things throughout the set. I had to have been one of maybe…ten people, if that, who even knew who they were, and most of us were up front and singing and/or dancing along. I remember a couple of people tried to start a pit but most folks just stood there and did nothing or backed away. Typical enough, I guess.

Now the Jesus Lizard were something else — David Yow and crew having been through the wars for some years at this point and clearly amused by the turn things had taken with their relative fame level, they decided there was no point in toning things down. Then again, I hadn’t seen them beforehand so perhaps they were, but I just remember Yow coming out and howling and hollering into the mic while the rest of the band made a hell of a lot of noise. There’s a great photo of Yow I have around courtesy of the photographer who went with me, black and white, him leaning out over the stage’s edge, it’s almost exactly my view of him as I stood up front and enjoyed everything. Easily the most insane moment was the conclusion of one song where Yow happily undid his fly down to where you could see his pubic hair and did this bizarre sashay across stage while Duane Denison played one of the sleaziest guitar riffs I’ve ever heard. Absolutely hilarious, really. More people were definitely into them than Therapy? but I have no idea what the heck those who were only there for Helmet thought, I seem to remember a few people getting completely freaked, while I was probably laughing my damn fool head off.

Which left Helmet. So from the front of the stage I immediately hightailed it back towards the seats, as I really had no desire to be pummeled or close to it. I didn’t go all the way back, it was more like two-thirds of the distance, far enough away to feel at ease but near enough to take it all in.

And what it was was even MORE monochromatic. Now I can’t entirely blame the band here — Crawford Hall’s acoustics aren’t exactly Carnegie or Disney Hall’s so nearly any performer has to struggle with that. But everything was this undifferentiated sludge from Helmet, and that’s reduced most of the performance in my brain to just four guys on stage grinding out a lot of noise under lights while the audience did its thing. “Unsung” got the biggest cheer and sounded the best just because its direct stop-start punch cut through said cruddy acoustics but when that’s the exception rather than the rule there’s not much else to be said.

I remember the crowd calling for the band loudly after the main set — “HEL-MET! HEL-MET!” — and the band obliging them as one might expect. I don’t remember what the heck my review was like — it’s not archived online and I hope that stays that way — but I hope my impressions all these years ago were borne out by my words then, because the whole thing was just a drag.

I went back to the newspaper office, possibly with the photographer and possibly not, wrote up the review and it ran two days later. Viva la rock and roll, I guess.

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