Sunday, October 9, 2011

October 9: Helmet, "Unsung"

Artist: Helmet
Song: "Unsung"
Album: Meantime
Year: 1992

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During various points in music history which were redefining the entire face of popular music, one can find a trend that if a band was not from a certain town or boasting a very specific style, they were completely overlooked, regardless of talent.  While many may point to this trend during the mid-1960's, it was far more apparent during the early 1990's, when bands that did not originate from the Northwest United States were seen in a "lesser" light.  Though this trend would fade after a few years, it did enough damage in the fact that many of the most talented and exciting bands of that era were missed by many due to nothing more than their geographic location.  Even bands that showed an entirely new level of musical brilliance, as well as having a similar high-energy approach were never given their due, and there are few groups that better represent this idea than Helmet.  Combining exceptional musicianship with some of the most creative musical arrangements of their era, Helmet were able to balance this innovation with a power and presence that was easily on par or past that of any other group recording at the time.  From unconventional tunings to perfectly placed distortion, their 1992 major-label debut, Meantime, remains one of the finest albums of the entire decade, and there is no more definitive a track in the Helmet catalog than their monumental 1992 single, "Unsung."

The moment that "Unsung" begins, there are two elements that are instantly clear, the first of which is the level of controlled intensity within the band.  There is no question that Helmet is bringing an amazing level of energy and spirit to the track, but it is the way that they keep this energy harnessed and focused, delivering maximum impact, that sets their sound so far apart from the "Seattle Sound."  This is in many ways the key to Helmet's music being as fantastic as it is, and yet it is also the reality that they are far superior in musicianship to a majority of their peers that places them into their own category.  The song itself may sound a bit "odd" to some listeners, and this is because it is actually recorded in the non-standard "drop D" tuning, giving "Unsung" a completely distinctive sound.  Bassit Henry Bogdan leads the charge on the track, and he is able to be as looming and intimidating as any other recording, yet in many ways, the precision and purpose with which he plays makes most other such performances seem almost cliché.  Complimented by the crunching, almost menacing guitar of Peter Mengede and Page Hamilton, and "Unsung" is able to harness a presence that has rarely been matched at any other point in music history.  Rounded out by the skipping, almost jazz-like drumming of John Stanier, and one can cite "Unsung" as one of the most important recordings in the development of the "start-stop" and multiple-rhythm songs that dominated the latter half of the 1990's.

Though they play somewhat of a secondary role to the magnificent musical arrangement over which they are placed, there is no arguing that the vocals of Page Hamilton fit perfectly into the mix on "Unsung."  Sounding in many ways similar to other frontmen of the era, there is a power within Hamilton's singing that much like the music, shows a certain level of purposeful restraint, and this works in helping his vocals to have maximum impact.  This conscious effort to ensure the clarity of his vocals almost instantly set them aside from other "heavy" style singers of the time, and one can see this as Hamilton having far more confidence in his abilities than many of his peers.  Yet even though he is not screaming, his vocals still have a great deal of impact, and this is yet another marker for the idea that "volume does not equal intensity."  Similarly, the lyrics which he sings are a distant relation to most other songs of the era, as there is a somewhat mysterious, almost poetic feel to every line, and this again shows just how musically superior Helmet were in comparison to most of their peers.  Yet the words to "Unsung" are also somewhat ironic, as lines like the openings statement of, "... your contribution left unnoticed some..." can be seen as the exact position that the band would find themselves in as the 1990's came to an end.  Regardless of this reality, there is no question that the words were brilliantly crafted, and they along with Hamilton's delivery retain their impact even after nearly twenty years.

There may be no other song from the 1990's that is as overlooked and under-credited for its importance as one finds in "Unsung," as almost every band that topped the "rock" charts in the decade that followed owed much of their sound and success to the pioneering efforts of this track.  Whether it is their concentration on the actual musicality of the song itself, the purposeful lack of distortion or "fuzz," or the start-stop rhythms that run throughout the track, there is simply no arguing that "Unsung" set the stage for the next musical movement, perhaps moreso than the "Seattle sound" which would fade relatively quickly.  Furthermore, the clarity and power within the vocals, as well as the more meaningful and deeper lyrics that push both the song and band to musical heights that many of their more commercially successful peers could not have imagined.  There is also an interplay between the members of the band that shows a rarely found musical chemistry, and one can also sense that the band members are having "fun" during the recording process.  Both of these ideas are also largely missing from many of the "big" bands of the early 1990's, and it is yet another reason why Helmet stand so far above their peers regardless of the credit they received.  Standing as a reminder as to just how much can be accomplished within the world of hard rock and perhaps even heavy metal, there is simply no other group or song that can hold their own along side Helmet and their masterful 1992 single, "Unsung."

1 comment:

BenB said...

Brilliant song. Criminally underrated band.