Happy 25th Anniversary to Helmet’s third studio album Betty, originally released June 21, 1994.
It wasn’t their antipathy toward a flannelled, homeless chic that made them compelling. It wasn’t their coincidental influence on one of metal’s inaccurately defined sub-genres called nu-metal. It wasn’t the lead singer/guitarist Page Hamilton’s range-less vocals that defined who they were. It wasn’t their lyrical esotericism that drew fans to their music.
It was the aggressive, groove-laden riffs and underrated rhythm section that made Helmet a recognizably distinct voice in an era of Nirvana sound-alikes. They snubbed their noses toward the music industry along the way because there were too many industry insiders who knew too much about marketing but not enough about the music they marketed.
This year, Helmet plans to celebrate its 30th anniversary of the band’s formation by embarking on a “30X30X30” tour celebrating thirty years of recording and touring, while playing 30 songs in 30 or more cities in Europe and the U.S. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of their seminal masterpiece Betty, a vast album vast that went beyond its 1992 predecessor Meantime’s single-minded musical scope. A fitting approach in an otherwise musical era oversaturated with blatant copies of groundbreaking acts.
As Hamilton told Rolling Stone in 2015, he decided to swim upstream. “I think I adopted a stance from the Ray Davies/Paul Westerberg school of thinking, which was something like, ‘If things are going really well, do the opposite—shoot yourself in the foot.” Whereas Meantime maintains the toughened template of out-front drums and the waves of crushing guitars against an immovable wall of sound, Betty’s resilience centers around the addition of musical styles to its slurry-filled guitar bombast.
Risk in music provides a freedom otherwise invisible in ritual. “The Silver Hawaiian” is the shedding of seriousness for the benefit of a song composed without direction. What gives “The Silver Hawaiian” its form is the lyrical babble and mindless wordplay on top of an infectious groove. It is puerile accident; yet, an accident that helps to define an album littered with welcomed hazards. Written with bass guitarist Henry Bogdan, Hamilton sounds drunk, deranged, and derelict, delivering lines like “Give him a hug and he drinks and he drives / Why the long face, Mr. Ed?” If fans of Meantime had expected “Unsung-the Sequel,” then this track alone would drive them away from Helmet.
Risk also affords bands freedom from market branding and stymied personas. Helmet’s ego emerges as sacred tricksters throughout Betty. The swamp blues of “Sam Hell” that was played on a Deering six-string electric banjo bears the same distortion. Hamilton’s vocals sound like they emanate from a megaphone. The charm of “Sam Hell” resists being a quirky introduction to a heavier verse that suddenly emerges. Instead, the song concludes Betty with underwhelming disdain toward its benefactor, Interscope, who bankrolled the band’s risk-taking adventure after all. Likewise, Hamilton showcases his jazz influences with a floating rendition of Victor Young’s “Beautiful Love” only to draw and quarter its structure with unnerving noise and ruthless derision. Today, to hear Hamilton take liberties with this composition demonstrates his fondness for his days at the Manhattan School of Music. What he destroys is destroyed with more compassion than abandonment.
However, risk here is still tethered to the past. More musical than its predecessors, Betty birthed two of Helmet’s most loved—and best known—tracks: “Wilma’s Rainbow” and “Milquetoast.” Produced by Butch Vig, “Milquetoast” merges Robert Poss’ influence on Hamilton during his time in the noise-rock Band of Susans. A perfectly manicured song until the guitar solo, “Milquetoast” sits neatly next to some of the early-to-mid ‘90s noteworthy compositions. But once the solo emerges into a beautiful wash of noise evocative of My Bloody Valentine, Hamilton reaches backwards to the band’s less frequently mentioned, yet equally brilliant early-career material compiled on the 1995 Born Annoying collection. According to Hamilton, Vig introduced the idea of muted guitars during the verse. Additionally, as he told Rolling Stone, he added a “…Pink Floyd, A.M.-radio effect” to Hamilton’s voice.
The dynamism of “Milquetoast” adds a push-pull aesthetic absent from most other Helmet compositions, thus making it one of its most memorable offerings. “Wilma’s Rainbow,” on the other hand, leaves hints and traces of its recent past, only to evolve from it with disorienting harmonics and a fierce, funk-influenced groove. Hamilton softens his vocal approach, abandoning his distinctive growl for melodicism. “Wilma’s Rainbow” falls and rises, expands and contracts, explodes and collapses into itself before it disappears and gives way to “I Know.”
In 1989, Band of Susans recorded a cover of Gang of Four’s “I Found That Essence Rare,” on which Hamilton performed. If any band duly influenced Betty’s infectious groove, it was Gang of Four. In a 2016 interview with Louder, Hamilton referred to “I Found That Essence Rare” —and Entertainment, the album that bears this beautiful piece of brilliance—as “life-changing.” Littered throughout Betty is Gang of Four’s rhythm section’s aesthetic. It is difficult to disregard this conspicuous detail on “Biscuits for Smut,” “Tic,” and “Clean.” But the Helmet sound that continues to ground its fans is distinctly Helmet’s.
Helmet’s risk did not require a reward. Art does not seek an end; it is a process. Betty’s legacy is simple: brand-named music is death. What the record companies never anticipated during the beloved early ‘90s was change. Helmet’s risk failed to generate the numbers Meantime did. Had the band created Meantime II, it would not have made Interscope any more profitable. Betty failed to yield another “Unsung,” and Hamilton knew this.