The mid-1990’s was both the best and the worst of times. On one hand, thrash metal had burned out, death metal was on a drip, breathing with the aid of a ventilator and the metal community was undergoing stylistic changes that were as self-conscious as a nun at a mud-wrestling tournament. Metal-heads were cutting their hair left right and Chelsea and some even wore garments that were neither denim nor black (the horror)! On the upside, the industrial metal sub-genre was edging towards mainstream acceptance and, thanks to acts like Fear Factory and White Zombie, cutting-edge techno types had begun taking an interest in remixing metal, opening up new avenues and possibilities. Suddenly metal-heads could get girls who weren’t wearing Iron Maiden and Metallica T-shirts. Well… we tried anyway.
Meanwhile, the hardcore scene, heavily involved in this climate of experimentation, was undergoing changes of it’s own. Sick of It All, Agnostic Front and Madball were doing brisk business and when the likes of Fugazi, Quicksand, Helmet and latterly Orange 9mm mixed in metal, art rock and even hip-hop elements, the media were quick to label the scene post-hardcore. It is with this movement that our story starts in earnest.
Helmet, Page Hamilton’s ‘thinking man’s metal band’, had made a huge impact with their debut Strap It On but it was with 1992’s weighty, yet immediately accessible Meantime, that they were catapulted into metal’s premier league. Behind the scenes however, things were not so rosy and second guitarist Peter Mengede was at loggerheads with his frontman and Helmet’s creative driving force. In 1993 he would leave under acrimonious circumstances (a court case would later allege that Hamilton withheld money and kept equipment belonging to Mengede), to be replaced by Rob Echevarria. But, from great conflict can sometimes come great inspiration and that was to be the case with Mengede’s next band project – the elusive Handsome.
An effective super-group in that Mengede was joined by Quicksand’s Tom Capone on guitar, former Cro-Mags drummer Pete Hines and Eddie Nappi (Mark Lanegan Band) on bass, the line-up was rounded out with Salt Lake City native Jeremy Chatelain on vocals. In 1996 they entered the studio under the guidance of Terry Date – suddenly a household name (in our household anyway) after his stellar production work with the likes of Pantera, Deftones and White Zombie – and the self-titled result was to be the one and only album Handsome would ever release. Given their lineage and lack of longevity, one might imagine that this obscure record – like many supergroups – could be the bloated spawn of too many egos, too much cocaine and excessive use of PRS guitars.
But it wasn’t. It was simply awesome.
A bombastic explosion of stylish riffs and jackhammer grooves, Mengede had learned well in the ranks of Helmet. While his former band went for angular simplicity, peppered with bursts of screaming noise, Handsome adorned their tectonic riffs with shimmering chords, atmospheric feedback and dissonance that was allowed to break free of the driving bottom end only under the strictest control while the drumming was effortless, groove-orientated and played to the stereotypes of neither metal nor hardcore; there was not a blast beat nor a double bass work-out in sight.
Lyrically, Handsome dealt with the topics that were popular in metal at the time – personal relationships, alienation and internal struggles – but where they differed to the tides of fake emotion that would dominate and ultimately have a hand in the murder of nu-metal, Jeremy Chatelain sounded modest yet sincere, angry yet inspired; and what’s more, this guy could really sing. Think a leaner, meaner version of Scott Weiland and you won’t be far off the mark.
Following a tour with the resolutely dreadful Silverchair in the U.S. and Wu-Tang Clan in Europe, rounded off by the departure of Tom Capone, Handsome split in 1998 without ever recording another track together. It’s hard to pick a high point among the 10 noisy, beautiful songs they left us but how about “Going To Panic” for it’s riff-writing masterclass and soaring chorus. Maybe “Quiet Liar” for it’s ability to evoke how it feels to fuck-up massively and know theres no one to blame but yourself? But if we could insist you check out just one track, it would be “Lead Bellied” which contains one of the most furious riffs we’ve ever heard. Now that is what brutality really means.
Handsome’s tenure was all too brief. Maybe Sony didn’t give them the necessary promotional support? Maybe the post hardcore label went out of fashion almost as soon as it was in? Maybe it was just the wrong time for a group of sensible looking guys when the metal community was falling back in love with facially pierced freaks in makeup and leather cowboy hats? But none of that matters now. What matters is that this incredible metal record is remembered as just that. Incredible.
Go listen to it and then tell a friend about what you heard. Handsome by name, handsome by nature.