June 23rd, 1992 HELMET released their second album, Meantime, through Interscope Records. The sound of Helmet is distinctive, yet difficult to describe. Few bands straddle the alternative rock/metal fanbase like them. Equally loved by the alternative rock, grunge and metal crowds. In the ’90s, they shared stages with alternative rock royalty like Nirvana, TAD, Melvins, L7 and The Jesus Lizard as well as metal gods like Slayer, Sepultura, Overkill and Obituary.
Page Hamilton created something special with HELMET, a heavy, primal energy matched with monstrous syncopated guitar riffs, clean/shrieked vocals, and a gutteral groove. In 1990, the New York based HELMET unleashed their debut album, Strap it On, through the noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile Records, a label known for releasing music from the Melvins and The Jesus Lizard, among others. While the bands debut had noise rock leanings, it hinted at the seismic riffs and crossover appeal the band would later hone with Meantime and, 1994’s, Betty.
In 2022 Page Hamilton spoke about his early influences and how they shaped the HELMET sound
“I had gone through my prog-rock phase when I was 17, 18 years old, and I just had no interest in wearing the musician cape and being like, “We’re going to show you the time signatures that we’re playing,” like King Crimson or Yes or whatever. I like that music, but I had outgrown it. I really liked noisy stuff and I really liked funky stuff. I really love AC/DC and Sonic Youth and Led Zeppelin, so somewhere in there is Helmet. People miss that about Led Zeppelin and especially AC/DC; they miss AC/DC’s complexities within the simplicity. It wasn’t necessarily that I made an intellectual choice, like solving a math problem. I knew that this felt good and I was fascinated by it. I would sit on the subway and drum time signatures, three against four. From that a riff would come..”
As 1991’s alternative rock and grunge explosion took hold, major labels scrambled to cut deals with any band remotely associated with the sound. HELMET weren’t immune to the attention and signed a deal with major label Interscope Records who handed them a sizable amount of cash (reported to be $1 million) to record what would become Meantime.
Page Hamilton, Peter Mengede, John Stainer and Henry Bogdan entered the studio between December 1991 and February 1992 and turned out an album for the ages. Recording took place at Fun City Studios in New York City and sessions at Chicago Recording Company Studios with Steve Albini which produced the standout track “In The Meantime.” The album was mixed by Andy Wallace.
Meantime is arguably one of the most influential and overlooked albums of the ’90s. It threw the rule book out the window. This music felt raw, real and crushing. It’s drenched with emotional power and edge of your seat thrills. Nobody sounded like HELMET, their start-stop riffing and minimalist, clean attack pulsated through the speakers quite like nothing before it and the ’90s alternative rock and metal masses lapped it up.
Opening with a wall of noise, “In The Meantime” quickly settles into a very “Helmet-esque” groove, setting the scene for the rest of the album. This relentless attack never loses sight of where the power of the track lies. John Stainer was the perfect drummer for a band like HELMET. Possessing some of the heaviest limbs to ever pummell a kit, his unique drumming both anchors and propels the band throughout the album.
“Ironhead” follows with a super tight, snaking riff, filled with jerky stop start passages and off time accents. Hamiltion adopts his sneering shout and delivers one of his atonal solos.
An album standout “Give It” follows, opening with a bouncing bass line, the song widens out into a mid-tempo sledge-hammer. Page gives us his clean vocal throughout.
“Unsung” was the hit single from the album, and arguably HELMET’s biggest song and it’s easy to see why. It has all the hallmarks of what makes HELMET so special. Tight groove, off time beats, thrilling shifts of pace and a masterclass in tension and release dynamics.
Speaking of tension and release, “Turned Out” nails it. With Hamilton back in his barking man mode, the verses are a syncopated riff fest, jagged stop-start stabs of sound fill the listener with an anxious sense of dread until the chorus opens up into a devastating emotional pay off.
“Better” starts with a palm muted marching riff that opens out into a head nodding belter. Page’s dual vocal attack is on display as he flits between his aggressive howl and clean, melodic vocals. “You Borrowed” continues the formula of intense groove, pounding riffs and melodic counter melodies. “FBLA II” (with its insane drum breakdown) and “Role Model” bring the album to a close.
At the heart of HELMET’s approach is the complexity of simplicity, much like Page’s comment above about the influence of AC/DC, who were, as he suggests, masters of the complexity of simplicity. HELMET too has full control over that approach, modernising it for a ’90s audience.
HELMET’s reach across the genre divides is impressive. The ’90s was a melting pot of rock styles comingling and collaborating, but HELMET crossed wider divides than nearly all their contemporaries. They did it not trying to please everyone, but by conviction and truth of purpose.
Meantime is still a vital album. The influence of the band, and this album, stretched to the end of the decade and beyond. Today its ideas and approach can still be heard in the music of many bands, through many genres. But none ever come close to the earth shattering drive of HELMET themselves. The ’90s coughed up incredible music and life affirming albums. Meantime stands proud among the very best of a great decade.