Were the Sex Pistols a heavy metal band?
Of course not. In fact, the question seems almost too silly to even ask. After all, what could any heavy metal act have in common with a bunch of spike-haired, safety-pinned punks like Rotten, Vicious and company?
More than you'd think, actually. As much as punk's anti-glamour aesthetic seemed the very antithesis of metal's party-hearty hedonism, the two styles actually have quite a bit in common. That's not merely a matter of (bad) attitude, either. Despite a similarity in their up-the-establishment stances, the most obvious parallels between punk and metal were sonic -- specifically, the aggressive roar of over-amplified guitars.
Metal bands have known this for years. Not only were many of the biggest and baddest inspired by the sound and fury of the Sex Pistols, but a few have actually paid tribute to the group. Motley Crue, for example, included a version of "Anarchy in the U.K." on its 1991 greatest hits album, "Decade of Decadence," two years after Megadeth covered the tune on its album, "So Far, So Good . . . So What?" Meanwhile, Skid Row offered a version of "Holidays in the Sun" on a 1989 charity album called "Stairway to Heaven/Highway to Hell."
Folks on the post-punk circuit, however, have had a much harder time acknowledging their music's debt to metal. Sure, some bands took unabashed pleasure in their hard rock roots -- think, for instance, of the Replacement's giddy reading of the Kiss tune "Black Diamond" -- but most seem insulted by the suggestion that punk and metal have anything in common. Why else would Nirvana's success with headbangers have seemed so shocking to the Spin readers of the world?
Nor is Nirvana the only alternative act with a sound built on heavy metal thunder. These days, a whole range of alternative acts are more than eager to crank up their Marshalls and split a few eardrums.
Take Helmet, as an example. Looking at the group's lineage, it would be easy to assume that this quartet's roots are in the artier end of the New York rock underground. After all, front man Page Hamilton is an alumnus of Band of Susans, whose dense, overdriven sound drew heavily upon the sonic experiments of composer Glenn Branca. And while the Susans' songs were a bit more conventional than Branca's guitar symphonies, Black Sabbath they weren't.
Yet "Meantime" (Interscope 92162), Helmet's second album, is not only riff-driven, but rocks as hard as anything the Sabs have done recently. From the punchy power chords of "He Feels Bad" to the pile-driver insistence of "Turned Out," Helmet's instrumental momentum is seemingly unstoppable, lending an undeniable physicality to the album's sound.
Even so, Helmet steadfastly avoids most of metal's musical conventions. There's nothing remotely heroic about the guitar solos, for example; instead of the finger-busting virtuosity usually expected of metal gods, the guitar breaks here skitter erratically over the riffs, as if the last thing guitarist Peter Mengede wanted was his picture on the cover of Guitar Player.
Likewise, the vocals often seem deliberately amateurish. Although it's easy enough to imagine Ozzy Osbourne's helium whine soar through the refrain to "Unsung," Helmet's Hamilton offers only the most cursory performance, delivering the notes with minimal passion or flourish. And while such deliberate understatement helps keep the emphasis on the rhythm section'saggression, it's hard not to wish he and the rest of Helmet hadn't made a little more of the material.
On the other hand, Helmet could have just as easily moved too far in that direction. Just look at the way Suicidal Tendencies are undone by the metal-mainstream conformity of "The Art of Rebellion" (Epic 48864).
Granted, this group has a much longer history of flirting with the metal mainstream, having moved quickly from the basic skate-punk (as typified by its 1983 debut, "Suicidal Tendencies") to the polished roar of more recent efforts like 1990's "Lights . . . Camera . . . Revolution." But what has always kept S. T. from coming across as heavy metal-wannabes is the way Mike Muir's songwriting has emphasized anger and angst above all else. After all, it's pretty hard to interest radio programmers in titles like "Suicyco Mania" or "Controlled By Hatred."
But even though Muir's lyrics are as eloquent as ever -- notice how deftly he portrays teen angst in "Nobody Hears" -- the band's musical resources are beginning to show signs of strain. It used to be that these guys got by on muscle alone, but now their arrangements seem grandiose, ambitious and woefully ,X overblown. And though it's nice to hear that guitarists Rocky George and Mike Clark have practiced long enough to pull off the tricky bits in "Can't Stop" and the bluesy "We Call This Mutha Revenge," knowing that doesn't exactly make the songs any more enjoyable.