Many cite Meantime as the apple of their eye from Helmet but it’s the 1994 follow up, Betty, that brought the New Yorkers to my attention and with it delivered a slab of feedback and odd-time signatures that I never grow tired of. The plunging chords and staccato drums are perfectly balanced against Page Hamilton’s wry vocal delivery, a seismic yet focused payload of anti-establishment vitriol that takes hold of your spine and yanks it through your bowels. Meantime and Betty’s influence was partly responsible for the establishment of the alternative and post-metal scenes and to this day still inspires bands to pick up the axe, none more so than Marriage + Cancer, who aim to venerate Helmet with their full-length, self-titled debut. It remains to be seen whether this amounts to anything more than a distorted echo.
Comprised of four members and based in Portland, Oregon, Marriage + Cancer start the record with a pulsating bass and percussion assault on “Command + Comply,” soon inserting crushing riffs that although simple are effective in building a large, suffocating cacophony. This is Helmet through-and-through, aided by vocals that blend the harsher elements of Page Hamilton with a Kurt Cobain detachment. “God is Tan” slows the pace to a doom-like churn similar to that found on Black Flag’s “Rat’s Eyes,” only denser, filthier; the throbbing bass a smear of anxiety-ridden muck. The vocals too shift downwards, each syllable a petulant limp, each verse escaping with only the faintest of enthusiasm. The pendulum swings the other way on “Honor on Our Knees,” a seething hardcore tempo that‘s splattered with a red mist.
The early stages of Marriage + Cancer presents well as the music is propulsive and memorable for the most part. This doesn’t last, and once we hit the midway point the album begins to lose its lustre as the simple nature of the arrangements reveals a surfeit of original composition. The tracks become self-feeding, recycling and regurgitating chords so that engagement is lost in a thick smog of indifference. The vocals, tolerable up until this point, start to outlive their welcome as the flat, whiny delivery chaffs against the background of the now moribund cacophony. There is nothing redeemable on the latter half of the record and notwithstanding the brief running time the impression tendered is of a well-meaning band that has run out of ideas. It didn’t take me long to be drained of any desire to revisit Marriage + Cancer, and I spent the remainder of my time pining to listen to Helmet instead.
Praise is not unmerited in some places, the bass and percussion feels alive, fashioned from ropey, black tendons and upturned concrete. Lead guitar is wild and soaked in feedback – not pleasant but pleasing in a contradictory way. The production does a fine job of selling the filth and the fury, a muscular, full-bodied presentation that impresses despite being delivered in a harsher manner than needed. But this is the thin end of the wedge and it cannot overcome the remainder of Marriage + Cancer’s problems.
Marriage + Cancer, like many fledglings, have sent their debut out into the world with the best of intentions, but goodwill can’t atone for the paucity of novel content. It’s clear that the band lacked enough material for a full-length record but decided to execute the plan even though a pared-down EP would have been the better option. The group are talented and far be it for me to stifle a band’s ambition, but until such time as Marriage + Cancer finds their muse and can produce a litter of worthwhile songs, I can’t in good conscious make a qualified recommendation and would advise potential listeners to tread with caution. Though the band may recall Helmet, Marriage + Cancer proves that there’s no substitute for the real thing.