Live Review: Helmet and Primus

by Mitch Goldman

Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA 8/8/95

This bill clearly demonstrates that besieged label Interscope Records has more going for it than just gangsta rap (listen up Bob Dole). Two bands who traditionally appeal to metal audiences but who's musical scope is much broader than their demo would indicate, Helmet and Primus both seem to be at some kind of career peak these days.

New York City metal funsters Helmet have been around awhile, first mutating out of the post-Sonic Youth dissonant noise group Band Of Susans. Page Hamilton left that band to form a more mechanized, disciplined metal combo, and thus was born Helmet. From their first single ("Born Annoying", 1989) to their first LP from that same year (Strap it On) it was obvious to anyone with ears that here was a hard rock band who could appeal to the clean-cut-non-metal-dude in all of us. Page's early vocals were screaming with guttural intensity, the drums and bass were locked into a major downbeat-syncopation kick, and the rhythm guitar functioned in a truly "rhythmic" sense. Page's searing lead guitar parts were the only melody transposed over this mechanized-yet-heart-stopping metal throb. Following a heavy bidding war in the wake of Nirvana's success in 1991, Helmet released Meantime, their first record for Interscope, and an album that added true melody and songwriting savvy to Helmet's otherwise limited bag of tricks. "Unsung," in fact, was paid hommage by Pantera, whose "Rise" is modeled on the rhythms of the Helmet tune. Last years' release, their third LP Betty, opened up Helmet a bit, including bluesy numbers, a jazz instrumental, and more of the same machine-like metal that Helmet has staked out as primary territory. The resulting live tour found Helmet playing some of the most intense shows of their career.

This summer's brief opening stint with Primus gave Helmet the chance to play a couple of new tunes, but mostly, they rocked out on some of their most loved repertoire standards. Opening with the single from Betty, "Milquetoast," the NYC boys has the historic Fox shaking with low frequency vibrations immediately. Page and his three piece rhythm section have their esthetic down pat; it's almost unfortunate that they've stylisitically painted themselves in a corner. Hopefully they'll be able to kick at the walls of their artistic cell a bit with their next release (the way they did with Betty) but the two new tunes played at this show don't really show any signs of compositional growth. Still, Helmet is an awesome live unit, and classics like "Unsung", "In the Meantime", and "Ironhead" delivered the pummeling intensity these boys are known for. Time, and the next record, will reveal what, if anything, Helmet can do to move forward in the dwindling metal marketplace.

Primus, too, is a band that does what they do ... and that's pretty much it. What this Bay Area trio does is a unique fusion of metal, thrash, punk, and funk ... the funk thanks to the post-Larry Graham bass stylings of prime mover Les Claypool. Les' legendary bass prowess is balanced by his wacky, Residents-influenced lyrics and singing; most of his tunes are portraits of weird or mean characters ("Mrs. Blaileen," "Jerry was a Race Car Driver," etc.). Guitarist Larry LeLonde (formerly of the seminal death-metal outfit Possessed) plays ringing, resonant, rhythmic leads over Les' bass lines (Les' bass parts are clearly the prime melodic elements in most Primus tunes). Herb Alexander, drummer extraordinaire, keeps it all anchored with his steady, non-thrash percussion approach. Through four studio albums (including their latest Tales from the Punchbowl) and one live record, Primus has been sticking to the same fusion of influences since the late '80s.

And like their recordings, their live shows have gotten tighter and more focused without actually treading any new or different territory. In some ways, this is a serious impediment to the future development of Primus, but like the Ramones and AC/DC, Primus seem to subscribe to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of music. Things certainly seemed to be "unbroken" at their Fox show; Les and company opened with the first tune from their first album (Frizzle Fry, 1990), "To Defy the Laws of Tradition," and from there played a very balanced repetoire of old and new tunes. Playing in front of a stage set that looked like a cozy little room (with changing "views" through the set's "windows" on each song), the trio had the audience moshing in the plush seats of the historic Fox theatre; so much so, in fact, that we vacated our third row seats in favor of the much-safer thirteenth row!

The older tunes (like their classic "John the Fisherman") seemed to get the most fervent response from the crowd, though more recent numbers like "Nature Boy" (from '93's Pork Soda) generated a fair amount of heat. Larry's searing guitar leads were the perfect counterpoint to Les' funky and melodic bass parts. Les pulled out his stand-up string bass for "Pork Soda" and "Seas of Cheese," but mostly stuck to his six-string, custom built electric model. And while the newer tunes had energy and enthusiasm, it's obvious that Primus covered all the territory they're going to cover on their first album; numbers like "The Toys Go Winding Down" sound fresher and newer than anything they've done since. The most spontaneous moment of the show occurred when some inconsiderate stage diver snatched Les' prized cap off his head during "Over the Electric Grapevine"; Les and the band walked off the stage, and a roadie meekly announced "Les wants his hat back." Surprisingly, the band re-took the stage and picked up "Grapevine" exactly where they had stopped!

Both Primus and Helmet are excellent live bands, and both have a truly unique sound and feel. Both have taken their influences and sounds to a new intensity and height with their most recent records. Unfortunately, they are both in a lockstep with their respective arts, and it remains to be seen if they can build on their esthetic while still covering new ground. So far, this shows no sign of happening ... so fans of both bands can enjoy them today, with little fear of being alienated by progress tomorrow.

HELMET (8:02-8:52):

That Won't Help Me->
Because You Can
Street Crab->
Turned Out
Wilma's Rainbow->
Just Another Victim->
In The Meantime

PRIMUS (9:20-10:56):

To Defy the Laws of Tradition
Mr. Knowitall
John The Fisherman
Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweakers
Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats
Mrs. Blaileen
Nature Boy
Southbound Pachyderm
De Anza Jig
Pork Soda
Sailing the Seas of Cheese
My Name Is Mud
Over the Electric Grapevine
The Toys Go Winding Down->
Harold of the Rocks

Jerry Was A Race Car Driver
Wynona's Big Brown Beaver

Copyright 1996
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