Recently metal has become infused with the spirit of punk. What had been a stagnant genre full of empty pomp and vapid posturing has become a valid form for populist statements of alienation. Young bands with something to say began to look to Black Sabbath instead of the Sex Pistols for musical inspiration, and gradually, despite protests from both camps, the two began to merge. Black Flag in its latter days began to sound suspiciously like a metal band, while the early albums of Metallica and Anthrax directly echoed the speed-driven angst of the Misfits and Killing Joke. Slowly, the lines have blurred.

This genre mixing came to a head when Nirvana hit it big–not, as some have suggested, because more people got turned onto punk, but because Nirvana was recategorized as metal. This was quite a reversal. After all, only a few short years ago a major critic like Robert Christgau could proudly plead complete ignorance of metal and its discontents, proclaiming it unworthy of his attention. Now a metal vocabulary is required for any critic worth his faded Yo La Tengo T-shirt, though in all honesty it’s hard to picture Dave Marsh listening to the newest Cannibal Corpse album in his spare time.

The rise of the New York noise/metal band Helmet is final proof that the guard has changed. This is a band that, despite lacking the basic pop appeal that brought Nirvana such a huge audience, crosses all borders, critical and popular. Its videos get played on both Headbanger’s Ball and 120 Minutes, and in regular rotation. Their recent single “Unsung” gets played on Northwestern’s WNUR, on WXRT’s “After 8,” on the all-metal WBLZ (“The Blaze”), and on the new reconfigured WLUP.

Helmet is loud, precise, and brutal. These, incidentally, are its virtues. The band claims influences as varied as John Coltrane and AC/DC, though its connection to the great and influential Chicago hardcore band Big Black might be more apparent–and not simply because of Steve Albini’s contribution as engineer on one of their songs. Helmet shares that band’s fascination with control and tension, and with the harsh textures of aggressive riffing guitars and shouted voices pressed low in the mix. And although it’s questionable whether Helmet would ever have the elan to cover Cheap Trick’s “He’s a Whore,” as Big Black did with such nasty aplomb, or whether they’ll ever move past the highly abstracted yet meaningless lyrics that litter their work, their newest album, Meantime, hits the listener with a rare sonic force. For that alone they should be treasured, though one might wish they would spend a little more time writing their songs and a little less time producing them.

Helmet’s first album, Strap It On, which sold about 10,000 copies on the indie noise label Amphetamine Reptile, was best summed up by the title of its first song, “Repetition.” Viscous minor-key riffs pounded into the listener’s skull with a degree of control rarely heard in alternative music, while the bizarrely off-tempo “Sinatra” was–dare I say it?–moving. The punishing “FBLA” (Future Business Leaders of America) sounded like Bill Frisell getting impaled on a fork. Moreover, Helmet was the tightest band many had heard in years, successfully integrating an array of complex time changes and sudden melodic shifts usually considered dangerous for someone who is not Frank Zappa. It all seemed quite promising. Maybe one day, I thought at the time, they’ll be as big as Fugazi.

I was wrong. The corporate powers that be got wind of the buzz and thought (correctly) that they could sell Helmet as a metal band. A bidding war broke out, and Helmet got a three-album, $1.2 million deal from Ted Field’s Interscope Records–a record, as far as I can tell, for a major-label debut. And at least from Interscope’s point of view the money seems to have been well spent, as “Unsung” climbs the charts.

Now, Helmet’s a great band, but Meantime remains a bit less impressive in reality than it is in concept. Although Helmet singer-guitarist Page Hamilton likes to throw Steve Albini’s name around in interviews, that doesn’t make them songwriters of the same magnitude. Albini was always singing about something, while Hamilton relies entirely on his guitar to smack you around. And he’s pretty good at it too. But when Hamilton sings a nonsensical lyric, like:

I’ll throw you scraps and talk

The bad things

The language or the motive

Affected shown is

Self imitating

Trust the dying breed

The pitch I made has been

(from “You Borrowed”), the listener is considerably more disappointed than if Jon Bon Jovi had sung the same thing. Perhaps we shouldn’t be led to higher expectations by the loftier level of musical discourse on Meantime. But it’s hard not to wish that Hamilton would listen more closely to the songs of his heroes and realize that there’s more to lyric writing than stringing together psychobabble.

Other songs, like, for example, “Unsung,” about the fleeting rewards of fame, do make a bit more sense, and the riffs are heavy and impressive throughout. But as great as the record sounds, it’s hard to take too seriously a band that demeans a great riff and a good song about cynical urban degenerates (“Turned Out”) with a tossed-off chorus about Downtown Julie Brown.

Live, however, Helmet is another experience entirely. Although on record the music can be a somewhat superficial pleasure, live it’s a physical assault. This, too, is a virtue. Last month, opening for Faith No More, Helmet commanded the stage in front of a thousand moshing kids, flying chairs, and trampled people. The band gave songs like “He Feels Bad” and “Give It” new force, with John Stanier’s drums beating in lockstep with the pulverizingly rhythmic bass/guitar combination of Henry Bogdan and Peter Mengede. Over this supercharged racket, which was causing a violent slam pit by the soundboard, Hamilton screamed himself hoarse, trying not to knock out his teeth with the microphone. And for a few minutes, listening to this incoherent man–who happens to have a master’s degree in jazz guitar–yelling, tearing out his spleen, and generally making a godawful noise, everything seemed right in the world.

But whatever Hamilton’s shouting about (“Ash is cow fertilized”?) Helmet’s presence on the charts is part of a larger cultural rupture best observed by watching Headbanger’s Ball, MTV’s “metal” show. This has lately become a resolutely surreal experience. What had once been the province of “hair” bands with more of a connection to Burt Bacharach than any punk ethic, traditional or otherwise, has now become a place where someone with a little patience can find good bands like Helmet, Rollins Band, and Tad. Conversely, 120 Minutes, MTV’s “alternative” show, is now filled with derivative English bands that all sound either exactly like the Smiths or exactly like Ride–neither of which was all that original to begin with. Yeah, occasionally Sonic Youth or some other once-great noise band past its prime like Dinosaur Jr. will get some play, but only in its current more formulaic, less experimental incarnation. On the most visible outlet for “alternative” music in America, the only bands you’ll see are those with releases on major labels. Bands like Slint and Pavement get no exposure whatsoever.

Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (who clearly benefits from the redefinition) has deemed alternative music to be “anything good,” since the vast majority of stuff out there is so bad as to be redeemed only by the obvious lack of effort put into its creation. Now that metal can be alternative too, maybe “alternative” simply means heartfelt music, in any genre. More and more, people seem to be finding their musical manna in a number of disparate genres. I’m not surprised to see a friend with Tar in his tape deck and Cypress Hill in his Walkman, with John Zorn and the Poster Children in his backpack, genre miscegenation almost unheard of a few years back. It’s slowly being recognized that different musical categories each have their own “alternative” elements, and that the essential differences between the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Fugazi are minimal at best. Bands with no traditional pop elements (including melody and songs) like sample-happy noiseniks Cop Shoot Cop and bass-weirdos Primus are receiving the same kind of attention and label push as traditional pop bands, and are selling a pretty sizable number of records. Two years ago, no major-label A-and-R guy would have given them the time of day.

Despite the confusion, I for one am somewhat encouraged. When Nirvana and the much more obscure Jesus Lizard put out their combined single later this year, all those Nirvana fans will get exposed to the best band in the nation, and maybe get pushed even farther to the left of the dial. And once they hear the sound of the Jesus Lizard blowing out their speakers, maybe they’ll keep buying it. It’s better, it’s louder, and there’s a level of commitment there that, say, Poison lacks. Just listen to Helmet. It’s not just the sound of control and textured guitars–it’s the sound of cash registers ringing, and kids smiling. And slam dancing. And maybe picking up a guitar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bobby Talamine.