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New York City. 1990. The Bowery. An urban wasteland long since re-imagined. Helmet strides into CBGB's to unleash a staccato fury of unrepentant lock-step, drop-D riffage on an unsuspecting crowd of NYC no-wave noisniks, post-punks, hardcore skate-kids, and suburban bridge-and-tunnel heshers. None of whom know what to expect from this quartet of clean-cut preppie looking kids. But certainly not this hellacious riot-in-a-prison death march stomp of weird jazzy undertones and off-time signatures squirreling away beneath a racket of caustic, choppy, die-cut sledgehammer metal grooves. It's a new sound, one that will find its way across America in less than two years, but for now, the bottom drops out on a NYC crowd completely unprepared to endure this blitz. Helmet wasn't the only one dropping bombs in 1990. A whole scene was growing around the fall-out from post-punk, hardcore, and thrash in late '80's/early 90's New York. Bands like Prong, Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, and Quicksand were sprouting up and taking over. But it was Helmet who refined the sound down to its finest, most diamond hard quality, who took the aesthetic to its heaviest levels, and then blew up into a near mainstream phenomenon with almost obscene levels of influence across a variety of underground scenes.
More than two decades on, it is hard to hear what made Helmet so innovative and original back then but the combination of explosively propulsive start/stop riffing, tight lock-step rhythmic syncopation, and gritty free-jazz noise freak-outs was a whole new thing. Combine that with the band's image: four dudes with crew cuts dressed in polo shirts and shorts who look more like tennis instructors than violently abrasive Lower East Side musicians and it is easy to understand how they could've touched off a sensation. That sound: of sandpaper scraping the surface of your ears; of heavy grooves just off-time enough to keep you guessing; of heaviness so crushing it stops your heart, it's all there. From the first second of "Repetition" to the last note of "Murder" and all twenty-nine minutes in-between, Strap It On catches Helmet rough and raw, primal and carnivorous. Ready to make a name for themselves with nine tracks that pile-up like a car crash.
Despite a somewhat papery-thin production sound (this record was clearly made on the cheap), Page Hamilton and Peter Mengede wield their guitars like bludgeons, ripping through the thin recorded sound with one nail sharp, jagged glass groove after another. Henry Bogdan's low-end rumbles like an F-Train through the East Broadway station while John Stanier plays one of the tightest kit in history. His precision performances on the drums are legendary. And this is a great early document of his style. Page meanwhile alternates between two distinct vocal stylings: atonal yelling and slightly amelodic singing. And his soloing interstitches post-Ornette free jazz with Sonic Youth-esque noise abrasions. It's a heady mix of ranging influences, offering something for everyone, and bringing together disparate scenes and sounds. Small wonder Helmet fans cut a swath across the Gen. X underground.
Helmet's Strap It On was the shot across the bow, a warning to all those throughout the hardcore, noise, and metal underground that a new band was muscling in with a sound set to ignite the world. And despite its various minor imperfections, Strap It On accurately presaged the devastating consequences that Helmet's follow-up record (Meantime) would deliver. Promised here, fulfilled there: Strap It On remains timeless and essential listening.