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Metal Shards

Chevelle, Helmet, Sonar, March 8, 2005

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/16/2005

Chevelle has metal for the masses figured out. The Chicago trio melds its neck-snapping boss-riff bridges to ephemeral melodies and anguished vocals. This is heaviness for the boys and the girls. And both ponied up the cash and raised their fists in a summer-sweaty Sonar for a five-band bill of the 10th installment of MTV’s SnoCore tour on a long Tuesday night.

Openers Future Leaders of the World, Strata, and Crossfade spit out pretty textbook big-hook/pretty-chorus alt-metal (save, maybe, Crossfade, which swings a grittier stick but feels much more innocuous). The oddly appropriate fourth band on the bill was New York’s Helmet, its guitarist/vocalist Page Hamilton being one of the architects of the genre’s sound. From the early-to-mid 1990s Hamilton and Helmet forged a crisp, bludgeoning metal, with short guitar solos (if any at all), scream-barked lyrics, and a look that was wildly different from the standard longhaired, black-denim-and-leather of the era. Its members looked more like former skateboarders grown up, even though they smelted a fierce assault.

Thing was, Helmet debuted in 1991, and as it entered midcareer, alt-metal discovered that it and extreme sports complemented each other divinely, and that commercial crossover passed the band by. Helmet proper disbanded in 1999, following the low sales of 1997’s Aftertaste. Hamilton hired some young guns for last year’s Size Matters, a return of the band, if not entirely a return to form.

Didn’t matter: Sticking primarily to newer cuts off Size and Aftertaste, Helmet’s hourlong set streaked by like a star defensive end, a muscle mountain that is ridiculously fleet-footed. Anchored by an athletic rhythm section, Hamilton was as giddy as older alt-metal guys can ever get. He chatted between almost every song—confessing that he spent the previous night getting hammered at the Ottobar and fondly remembering Helmet’s first visit to Charm City at the Lithuanian Hall—and never missed a lick in the interlocking latticework that is his guitar tone. Where other early-’90s hard bands mined the fuzz of 1970s rock (grunge), or stretched the sledgehammer blows of punk into the baroque (Jesus Lizard), Hamilton and Helmet compressed 1980s heavy metal, squeezing all the pomp and florid melodies out, until all that was left was a feral skeleton of riff and rhythm. And when Helmet did dig deep for some classics—the mammoth “In the Meantime” and the closer “Unsung”—the older guys in the club roared in recognition.

Helmet’s army is mostly male, though. Chevelle—brothers Joe (bass), Peter (guitar/vocals), and Sam (drums) Tempesta—cuts its heavy with enough pretty not to be an all-testosterone attraction. In stark contrast to Helmet’s no-BS four guys on a low-lit stage setup, Chevelle brought its own light show, all the better to control the mood for its slow and steady melodies erupting into throbbing choruses. And it trucked through its nicely paced hourlong set with a churning brio.

And you know these bros don’t got no egos because of their stage-front setup: drummer Sam flanking stage left, spiky-dark-haired Peter in the middle, and spiky-blond Joe stage right. They cut slender silhouettes as lights rotated behind them, alternating between soft white and low for the reflective whine (“You used to beg me to take care of things/ And smile at the thought of me failing,” Peter offered in a breathy hush) and bright and pulsating for the rocking purge (the “Much like suffocating” throat chorus) of “Send the Pain Below.” That dynamic is the one thing Chevelle does, and it does it with a near-hypnotic repetition: Soft, sustained guitars hover anxiously under verses until Joe and Sam bring the tension to a head and everything explodes into bar-chord Technicolor. It’s the shape of the pithy “Comfortable Liar,” the been-down-so-it’s-beginning-to-look-like-up “Get Some,” the ennui limbo of “One Lonely Visitor.” And while such sound tends to smear together on album, onstage Chevelle enthusiastically rides its rising and falling mini-epics like a dinghy in a disgruntled sea, taking all the raised hands in the club along for the ride.

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