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A challenge worth accepting. - 90%

Lord_Of_Diamonds, January 14th, 2020

As influential as they obviously were on certain varieties of 90s heavy rock and pseudo-metal, it's surprising how Helmet never quite reached the mainstream during that gilded age of alternative music. They were - dare I say it - unsung. It's sad, because in the first half of the 90s they created three albums of some of the best rock music that decade had to offer. "Strap It On" is the first of these albums, and the old stuff is always the best stuff. Press the play button and prepare for thirty minutes of raw, cramped, frantic material.

This is one of Helmet’s most post-hardcore influenced albums, but it isn’t the whiny, noodly Dance Gavin Dance variety. Gnashing three-note riffs, guitar noises and wall-of-sound “core chords” grind away over an incredibly punchy drum & bass section. Page Hamilton is yelling at the top of his lungs as usual, preferring that vocal style and only really giving clean singing predominance in “Make Room”. The vocal lines are sparse in a way that feels like you're not really supposed to pay much attention to them - part of the Helmet signature sound. Hamilton also handles the lead guitar parts, which are chaotic but not in the Jeff Hanneman sense, with some technique involved. No, these leads are played with no technique at all - Hamilton just randomly rakes his pick across the strings, creating abrasive noises and sounding like he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. It’s a unique type of solo and doesn’t sound like a man trying to play one and failing miserably. It sounds like a man using the guitar as a noise instrument. He's taking all the undesirable sounds that come from high-gain guitar playing and sculpting them into a desirable shape. Two tracks on this record are almost wholly made up of guitar noises: "Sinatra" and "Murder". “No one’s safe!” Hamilton yells on the latter, while noises that sound like scrap metal being fed into a wood chipper swarm around him.

No matter how noisy it gets, each song still finds a way to stick in your head. This stuff can’t afford to take time in the technicality department to jam through as quickly as it can, and its simplicity doesn’t bring it down hardly at all. You’ll not forget the tension-building breakdown after the intro of “FBLA” that reduces the track to silence, broken suddenly by Hamilton’s shout. Same with the groove metal riffing in “Blacktop” (the most metal-oriented track on the album), which creates an addictive headbang-worthy atmosphere. The musicianship is far from technical, but the band isn't afraid to play with odd time signatures, such as the alternation between 6/8 and 12/8 in “Repetition” and the 7/4 in "Distracted". A way to keep things interesting while preserving the simple guitar, drum, and bass line formula. Helmet has a winning combination of songwriting tactics here, and there's really only one major imperfection to be noticed: the arrangements. They can get a bit predictable with the two verses & choruses, solo, chorus, out formula, but the band was new & unrefined at the time and their songwriting would improve on their next album.

In case you haven't guessed from the musical description so far, this isn't a metal record. It's a 90s heavy rock record that contains many of the elements that make a lot of 90s heavy rock bad. Don't let that discourage you, though. Helmet uses those elements in a way that's more natural & enjoyable than most and ends up with a release that delivers a lot for its short runtime. Aggression in the form of basic rock beats, semi-unclean vocals and percussive guitar noises never sounded so good.