SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

HELMET – BETTY (1994)

June 21st, 1994, HELMET released their third album, Betty, on Interscope Records. 1994 was an apex year for alternative rock releases. Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Alice In Chains Jar Of Flies, Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy, Melvins Stoner Witch, Stone Temple Pilots Purple, and Veruca Salt’s American Thighs barely scratches the surface of landmark releases that year. The alternative rock movement of the early ’90s differed from the previous movements; it was a broad church; each band within its all-encompassing net was more closely connected through a shared ethos rather than any discernible sound.

For example, within the microcosm of “grunge”, the big four of Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Nirvana were musically poles apart yet somehow considered part of the same musical scene. Maybe geographical considerations over musical similarities led people to lump these artists together, but once the bands of the Pacific Northwest opened the mainstream floodgates, a raft of equally brilliant alternative rock bands from all corners flooded through in their wake, many of whom shared the sensibilities of their Washington State contemporaries. Whether it was dumb luck, perfect timing, or both, the public was ready for what was rising from the underground.

Previous movements in rock that had reached mainstream appeal before the ’90s were more discernable musically. Bands tended to share sonic commonalities: Punk, Shoegaze, Glam Metal, Thrash Metal, Heavy Metal, New Wave, and Post-Punk had all grazed the sleeve of mainstream success at various times, with some becoming mainstream; they were also a lot easier to categorise than the smorgasbord of sounds presented as the ’90s rolled into view.

The difference between the ’90s alternative landscape and what came before was that the bands who broke through after the seismic audience shift post-Nevermind were less interested in sticking to a musical lane and more interested in musically pilfering from everywhere and anywhere. Thus, bands as diverse as Primus, Melvins, Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Butthole Surfers, Mudhoney, et al. found themselves sharing common ground and an audience far more open to the idea of eclectism in their musical tastes than had previously been the case—Helmet’s exhilarating brand of blunt-force rock fit this ethos like a glove.

Helmet was formed in 1989 in New York City by Page Hamilton, a native of Portland, Oregon. As the group’s first official line-up, Hamilton recruited bassist and fellow Oregonian Henry Bogdan, Australian guitarist Peter Mengede, and Floridian drummer John Stanier. Once the pieces were in place, they realised a stunning vision of brutally acerbic music that leaned heavily on syncopated grooves, crushing riffs, and savage emotional peaks.

Signing to independent Amphetamine Reptile Records, the band released the first of a holy trinity of albums that redefined the boundaries between alternative rock, metal, and hardcore. Helmet’s broad appeal was evident from the get-go. The relentlessness of 1990s Strap It On spoke to listeners who revelled in the intensity of metal but had grown tired of its clownish clichés and, simultaneously, reeled in those who enjoyed the originality of alt-rock without the limp passivity.

It was 1992’s Meantime where the band hit their stride. Signing to major label Interscope Records after a bidding war erupted in the wake of Nirvana’s astounding success with Nevermind, label executives were soon scavenging to find the “next” Nirvana and touted Helmet as just that. The band reportedly signed for a staggering $1 million. Page Hamilton recalled, “They were interested in us before Nirvana broke. An A&R guy at one label told us that we were the next U2. At a certain point, it just becomes ludicrous.”

Despite lacking the primary pop appeal that brought Nirvana such a vast audience, Helmet is a band that crossed all borders. Even MTV couldn’t decide where to put the band in its programming schedule; for example, Meantime’s singles were heavily rotated on Headbangers Ball (a metal program) and 120 Minutes (an alternative program).

The soundtrack for a movie adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book series The Crow was released on March 29th, 1994. Nestled among a rich assortment of glitchy industrial rock, punk, and alt-rock sat Helmet’s first offering since the near flawless Meantime album. “Milktoast” (or “Milquetoast” as it would later be spelt on Betty) stands out as a highlight on a record full of them. The band had evolved but lost none of its dexterous power and slashing groove. One change occurred: Rob Echeverria replaced guitarist Peter Mengede, but the Helmet machine chugged on, seemingly unperturbed.

The Crow soundtrack’s success heightened the anticipation for Helmet’s new album, Betty, released on June 21st of that year. The striking album cover art, featuring a preppy girl sitting in a green manicured garden with a basket of roses, brilliantly juxtaposed the pummelling fare within.

The album opens with “Wilmas Rainbow,” a piledriving slab of thick bouncing grooves delivered with military precision. John Stanier’s snare sound is immediately present, ricocheting like persistent shotgun blasts piercing waves of molten guitar. “The title came from a place in New Orleans that I believe was on Magazine Street, right next to the funeral home that Trent Reznor later bought for his studio,” Hamilton recalled, “Helmet was playing at Tipitina’s, and I was walking around before the show, looking for something to eat. Wilma’s Rainbow was a shop that had shaved ice and wings. I thought That’s a great title for a song.”

“Wilma’s Rainbow” doesn’t stray from the incendiary formula set out on Meantime, but a subtle layer of more palpable melody creeps into the chorus hooks. Hamilton’s guitar solo during the outro is an atonal, free jazz workout over a driving dirty bomb bounce. It’s an auspicious opening that beautifully sets the tone for what’s to come.

John Stainer opens “I Know” with a thudding beat; Hamilton and Echeverria introduce waves of complex chord voicings in single-strummed intervals as Bogdan’s bass rumbles with savage intent beneath. After one minute of atmosphere building, Stanier drops out, leaving Hamilton and Echeverria to duke out a sputtering call-and-response interlude before a new head-bobbing lump of riffage is introduced as Hamilton adopts his menacing, gritted teeth roar.

“The riff of “Biscuits For Smut” was an accident,” said Hamilton, “I was visiting my family, and I had a beautiful blue G&L guitar with me that I had just put new strings on. I picked it up a half-hour later, and it was tuned to an open A7 chord. I loved the sound and the feel of that tuning, and I immediately came up with the harmonic thing at the intro.” Bogdan’s bass is integral to the energy of “Biscuits For Smut.” Its sliding groove hits hard and adds the requisite spring to complement Stanier’s attack. Hamilton’s voice is light and rhythmically in the pocket, its tone affected as though he’s delivering each line through a telephone receiver.

For good reason, “Milquetoast” is a standout track on the album. Its dynamic punch navigates a sea of weighty, complex chord voicings and edge-of-your-seat thrills as the band drive toward its euphoric outro. “We did one version of “Milquetoast” with (Nevermind producer) Butch Vig for The Crow soundtrack, and then one with Andy Wallace. I had wanted to work with Butch before, but I was wary because of the whole Nirvana thing. Record companies wanted everything Nirvana but we weren’t Nirvana. When I met him, I really liked him.”

Hamilton continued, “Butch gave me the idea to have no guitars in the first verse. He said, “Why don’t you mute the guitars here and just do this vocal thing?” And then he added that Pink Floyd A.M-radio effect to my voice. That changed the song’s feel because, originally, it was in-your-face right from the beginning. Which is kind of our thing — Helmet’s not known for dynamics. But Butch was like, “How about some dynamics?” And I said, “What a great idea!” It became one of my favourite things on the album.”

“Tic” masterfully uses space as its weapon. The notes not played become integral. Hamilton again adopts his strangulate roar, delivering caustic lines like “Weasel to me, charming to some / Loathsome and glib, habits like self-love.” “The lyric is about not accepting one another’s idiosyncrasies,” Hamilton revealed. “When I did the vocal, I got the take I loved, but the engineer we were using wasn’t prepared for it. It came out distorted, but it was the one I had to have. So we put it on the record that way.”

“Rollo” puts the titanic drumming of John Stanier front and centre; its syncopated stops embellished with his savage tom rolls fill the space with thrilling effect. “That was something that Henry Bogdan came up with,” revealed Hamilton, “We were in rehearsal and would play the riff he showed us, but it was tricky. Then we’d come in the next day and play it, and he’d say, “You’re playing it wrong.” And I’d say, “Well, this is how we played it yesterday.” Then he’d play it differently. After going back and forth, I grabbed a Sharpie and a piece of corrugated cardboard that was lying around, and I wrote out what he played in musical notation. I said, “OK, cool. I’ll have it tomorrow.”

“So we come in the next day, and, again, he says, “No, you’re playing it wrong.” Finally, I said to Henry, “OK, play it.” Henry played it, and I grabbed another piece of cardboard and wrote down exactly what he had done. Then I showed him both pieces of cardboard: “OK. This is what you played me yesterday. This is what you played me today. We have to make a choice — it’s one or the other. Is the accent on the “and” of four or the “and” of one?” So it was a funny thing. But it was such a good riff and such a good set of changes that it was worth putting in the time. And it’s one of my favourite songs to play live.”

“Street Crab” has the relentless grind of a kango hammer demolishing concrete. It’s pulsing mass licks and whips with malice. Hamilton’s warmer, more restrained vocal approach contrasts beautifully with the instrumentals pulverising swagger. The jagged, mathematical verse riff of “Clean” perfectly sets up the more straightforward, open melodicism of the song’s expansive chorus. Hamilton’s vocals find some genuinely emotive melodies that play perfectly off the muscle of the rhythm section.

The wickedly propulsive, off-time jilt of “Vaccination” is infectious. “It’s one of our most challenging songs to play live. The rhythmic displacement is what throws you off. When we started touring Betty, it took some doing to get it down. And I can’t play the riff and sing the verse at the same time. I can either do the riff with the band or sing the words, but not both simultaneously. Obviously, I need to sing, so I lay off the guitar part.”

“Beautiful Love” is a jazz song from the thirties composed by Wayne King, Victor Young, and Egbert Van Alstyne, with lyrics by Haven Gillespie. Helmet’s version dispenses with the lyrics, with the song’s opening half focusing on Hamilton’s considerable solo jazz guitar chops before descending into a free jazz workout mangled and pushed through the Helmet meatgrinder.

“I was turned onto it through hearing the Bill Evans version. I also thought it was a great title that would stick out on a Helmet record. I’m a jazz nerd, but the other guys, I had to trick them into doing this a little bit. Back then, John was reluctant to do things that he deemed uncool. So I went into the studio and pretended we were getting some levels. I said, “We need to hear the drums. Do that shit you do in sound check. Play the whole kit.” He did his thing, and we recorded it. Then I did the same thing to Henry. I took those pieces, put them together and overdubbed all this shit on top of it. Then, I spliced it into the song. I basically fooled the guys into doing free jazz.”

“Speechless” again uses space to convey a sense of weight and groove. Hamilton’s vocal approach is relaxed and melodic, while his guitar solo is atonal and frenetic. “The Silver Hawaiian” is a funk jam oddity that somehow doesn’t feel out of place despite its quirky nature. Hamilton delivers the nonsensical lyrics in a spoken-word baritone, which adds to the comical whimsey. “I love playing this song live,” offers Hamilton, “I love the funkiness of the riff and that low tone in my voice. It’s really fun.”

“Overrated” chugs with a mid-tempo grind that feels contemplative and reflective. “It’s about giving up, about how pathetic we all feel from time to time,” offers Hamilton. Musically, the song doesn’t trade in the sudden time shifts and off-kilter jagged edges of Helmet’s standard fare; instead, it shifts through distinct passages that never repeat but share the same wide-open introspective restraint. In 2015, Hamilton revealed a significant influence on him while writing “Overrated” “There’s some Melvins influence in there as far as I’m concerned because they would write such cool songs that never came back to repeat a section. They would go A, B, C, D, and then be done. We had played with the Melvins on one of our first tours — seven guys in one van. They’re a great band. So there was definitely that influence at play here.”

The album closes with the banjo blues of “Sam Hell.” Hamilton’s deep respect and love of jazz and blues seeps through on Betty more than any other release in the band’s back catalogue. While these forays are tempered and fed through the Helmet mincing machine, they never come off as joking or trite; instead, Hamilton and Co. instil the gritty realism of hardcore’s metallic sheen into these deeply emotive music forms, thus giving the band’s angle a human and honest edge that’s so wilfully lacking in modern jazz and blues players who continually exhume the corpse of hackneyed clichés.

Hamilton recalls the song’s inception, “I wrote this at the 16th St. apartment. The lady across the hall was slightly wacky and said, “I hear you’re playing blues in there. Do you know Big Joe Turner used to live in your apartment?” I was like, “Are you shitting me?” So it was appropriate that we did “Sam Hell.” In the studio, I played it on a Deering six-string electric banjo.”

“Sam Hell” is an appropriate end to possibly the most experimental album of Helmet’s career. Hamilton leaned more heavily on his diverse musical background, putting noise elements, unusual meters, and extended, augmented chords to greater use. The band could have floundered in exploring jazz, blues and guttural funk, but instead, these explorations feel honest and natural.

Helmet’s run of albums from 1990’s Strap It On to 1992’s Meantime and 1994’s Betty is a beautifully creative arc. The band gradually expanded its horizons without compromising its core ideals and sound. By the time Betty came around, the legions of fans on the Helmet journey couldn’t help but know their sonic explorations were sincere, and progression was the lifeblood of this band. That honesty gave Helmet their edge during the alternative rock boom of the early ’90s.

Essential..!