SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

HELMET – MEANTIME (1992)

June 23rd, 1992, HELMET released their second album, Meantime, through Interscope Records. Helmet’s sound is distinctive yet difficult to describe. Few bands straddle the alternative rock/metal fanbase like them. They are equally loved by the alternative rock, grunge, and metal fanbase. They’ve shared stages with alternative rock royalty like Nirvana, TAD, Melvins, L7, and The Jesus Lizard and metal gods like Slayer, Sepultura, Overkill, and Obituary with their savage brand of rock never seeming out of place in any setting.

Helmet’s heavy, primal energy blends monstrous syncopated guitar riffs, clean/shrieked vocals, and a guttural groove into an abrasive cocktail of exhilarating rock. The band released its 1990 debut album, Strap it On, on the noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile Records, which had released music by (the) Melvins and The Jesus Lizard, among others. While Strap It On’s noise rock leanings hinted at the seismic riffs and crossover appeal, the band would hone their sound to perfection on its follow-up, Meantime.

“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,” recalled Hamilton, “I liked that music, but I had outgrown it. I really liked noisy stuff, and I really liked funky stuff. I love AC/DC, 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.”

If AC/DC’s complexities are within their simplicity, then Helmet’s simplicities are within their complexities. Both bands share more in common than one might initially consider. The raw, simple, brute emotional groove of AC/DC is also harnessed in Helmet’s music. So, too, is each instrument’s dry, tight attack and the ability to remove all the fat off the bone of each song, leaving just the purest elements to drive the rhythm. Helmet’s complex time signatures, and arrangements differ starkly from AC/DC’s straight-up feral blues swing. While both bands are aeons apart in how they deliver their attack and aggression, a similar overall ethos is at play.

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 wasn’t immune to the attention, signing a contract with 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 Stanier, and Henry Bogdan entered Fun City Studios in New York between December 1991 and February 1992 with extra sessions at Chicago Recording Company Studios with Steve Albini, who produced the track “In The Meantime.” Andy Wallace was hired to mix the album, a choice that irritated Albini. Later, in negotiations to record Nirvana’s In Utero, Albini stipulated a clause be added to his contract stating that Wallace would not be allowed to remix the album, which was released nine months before Meantime.

Meantime is arguably one of the most influential and overlooked albums of the ’90s. It threw the rule book out the window. This music was raw, honest, crushing and unhinged. It’s drenched with emotional power and edge-of-your-seat thrills. There’s no doubt Helmet brought something new to the table. Their start-stop riffing and minimalist, clean attack pulsated 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. This relentless attack always retains sight of where the power of the track lies. John Stanier was the perfect drummer for a group like Helmet; his heavy limbs pummel the kit with a sustained musical passion and precision, propelling them to greater heights. Hamilton’s ridged bark may be an aggressive howl, but it’s rhythmically pitch-perfect and always perfectly placed.

“Ironhead” follows; its tight, snaking riff overflows with jerky stop-start passages and off-time accents; this dynamic creates a compulsive and vitally exciting drive. Hamilton adopts his sneering shout, bellowing, “Safe to kill / It all comes back / Stick it out / and wage my own attack” with ferocious intensity while delivering each syllable with a clipped feral potency.

An album standout, “Give It”, opens with the carpet bomb attack of Henry Bogdan’s filthy bouncing bassline before settling into a ripping mid-tempo sledgehammer groove. Hamilton adopts his clean vocal delivery throughout, ominously singing, “Killing hurts / Has to be done” over a verse riff that uses space to give it extra weight.

“Unsung” was the album’s “hit” single and arguably Helmet’s most loved song, and it’s easy to see why. It has all the hallmarks of what makes the band so unique: a tight groove, off-time beats, thrilling shifts of pace, and a masterclass in tension and release dynamics. Boasting a stuttering, grinding main riff and the wall-of-noise guitar work of Page Hamilton and Peter Mengede, ‘Unsung’ was the second single pulled from Meantime. It quickly became the band’s signature song and MTV favourite in late 1992.

The tension and release of “Turned Out” is palpable. 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, revealing a devastating emotional payoff. “He Feels Bad” begins with cascading open chord sequences that flit between spacious exclamation point hits and crushing chromatic downbeats. The verses lock into a choked, skin-tight groove.

“Better’s” palm-muted intro riff sees guitar, bass, and drums play off opposing time signatures. It creates an odd dramatic tension as the guitar riff loops over the drum pattern, locking into place only during specific parts of the riff cycle. Eventually, this tension builder morphs into a head-nodding verse that’s more straightforward but no less powerful. Page’s dual vocal attack is displayed as he moves between an aggressive howl and clean, melodic lines.

“You Borrowed” continues the formula of intense groove, pounding riffs, and melodic counter melodies. Hamilton’s ability to add jazz-influenced extended chord voicings layered in crushing distortion is a calling card. These unusual textures felt new and triggered vivid emotional responses from the listener. “FBLA II, with its adrenalized riffing and insane drum breakdowns, is a devastating track laced with vicious intent. John Stanier’s drumming is spectacular, while the band are in imperious form.

“Role Model” concludes the album. Its drum and bass verse beds Hamilton’s stark vocal. Once the guitars re-enter, elements of Strap It On’s noise-rock intent filter through beneath the sturdy riffs. Hamilton rips a series of unusually melodic and considered solos, gradually pushing deeper into the avant-garde free jazz blitzkriegs he’s known for as the song concludes.

The band’s reach across genre divides is impressive. The ’90s was a melting pot of rock styles, with Helmet effortlessly gathering admirers from disparate corners of the rock fanbase. They did this not trying to please anyone but themselves— fans keenly felt the band’s steadfast conviction and truth of purpose, the music mattered, nothing else. Their lack of image was refreshing: no flannel, ripped shorts, or steel-toe boots were anywhere in sight; these guys looked like they could do your taxes and then rip your face clean off with some of the most potent riffs imaginable.

Meantime is a vital album that has aged immaculately. The band itself and this album’s influence stretched to the end of the decade and beyond. Today, its ideas and approach can still be heard in the music of many acts across various genres. But none ever come close to the earth-shattering drive of Helmet themselves. The ’90s produced incredible music and a bounty of life-affirming rock albums. Meantime stands proud among the very best of a great decade.

Essential..!