Melody from Noise

By A. J. UrquidiMay 1, 2024

Melody from Noise
HELMET: LOOK LEFT TOUR with CRO-MAGS, Teragram Ballroom, Los Angeles, April 28, 2024.

On Sunday in Central Los Angeles, I parked on one of Westlake’s copious skid rows, crunching the gutter-salad of glass crumbles from the last car that gave up circling the block and settled for this fateful spot. A wife-beater-clad gentleman was exchanging a baggie for cash before the unblinking eye of the Wells Fargo ATM. Descending toward 7th, not far from abandoned real estate that could’ve housed the houseless, I passed three different flavors of fecal stench and a dusty man shrieking and smacking his skull like an 11th-century friar.

It’s fairly typical soul-crushing scenery near Teragram Ballroom, where alternative trailblazers Helmet were slated to headline, but I was thinking of another encampment three miles southwest. Like other colleges nationwide, students at the University of Southern California were occupying Alumni Park in an interfaith coalition this week to protest the school’s investments in the military-industrial complex, which has massively profited from the Israeli government’s elimination of thousands of noncombatants in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas attacks. Last week, USC—a private college notorious for elite donors, celebrity children, and Department of Defense partnershipscanceled its principal commencement ceremony and sicced the LAPD on assembled students. Against tense backdrops of urban doom loops, union battles, and a hilariously undesirable election cycle (with bonus SCOTUS democracy-ending shenanigans) that is likely to get Americans killed this fall, the campus arrests seem to portend much sourness to come for 2024.

Inside the venue, surrounded by pimply undergrads and wizened Gen-X metalheads, I dismissed thoughts of the decline of Western civilization and focused on the crossover thrash unfolding onstage. Harley Flanagan’s Cro-Mags were chugging through “No One’s Victim” while teens skanked in a circle behind me, the gyrating body-wall pinning my waist to the stage. I was soon overtaken by an enterprising hoodlum climbing my shoulder to stage dive onto the heads of unprepared fiftysomethings. The outspoken Flanagan, 57, was a puckish, shirtless harbinger of love and gratitude, who discussed overhauling his controversial behavior after surviving a traumatic youth; lamenting the senseless conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, and unnamed regions forgotten by the American media, he invoked the band’s 1986 debut to introduce “World Peace,” about humanity’s intrinsic inability to achieve the title ideal. I tried not to take that fatalism to heart.

Eventually, Helmet (founding singer-guitarist Page Hamilton with supporting bandmates hired during the band’s 21st-century revival) graced the crowd with sacred riffage. Before initially disbanding, they released four albums (1990’s Strap It On through 1997’s Aftertaste) that formed a solid, influential oeuvre and likely contributed to nu-metal’s inception via admirers who thought it’d be cool to rap whitely over Helmet-style riffs (love it or hate it, it’s rock’s canon). Hamilton’s clearly more about the music than the laurels, as he’s released five more Helmet LPs since reforming the brand in 2003. Recent albums feature a dynamic range of aesthetic experiments, but Helmet selected only their rippingest tracks, like “Enemies” and “Dislocated,” to garnish the ’90s fan-favorites set list.

The band dedicated generous space to celebrating third album Betty’s 30th anniversary this year, complete with hooky alt-rock from “Wilma’s Rainbow” and weirdo-sleaze à la “Silver Hawaiian.” For an hour, I withstood the rhythm guitar’s pipe-saw grind in my left ear, training it to distinguish melody from noise. Surprisingly, Helmet tackled 1992 opus Meantime’s entire A-side. After tearing through its deservedly best-known song, they ended their encore with Meantime’s opening track, which earned a 1993 Grammy nomination, reminding moshers of Helmet’s pioneering place atop the head of alt-metal.

Helmet’s songs are bitter, critical, resentful—directed at specific risible targets or malevolent forces soiling collective experience. Exiting Teragram into a world falling apart at the seams due to human incompetence and malice, some might succumb to cynicism. Meantime, I’m looking to the students down the street who believe “world peace [can] be done.”


Photo by contributor.

LARB Short Takes live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

A. J. Urquidi is the copydesk chief of Los Angeles Review of Books and co–executive editor of indicia.


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