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Sunday, 14 October 2012

Helmet - Betty (1994)

I was introduced to Helmet by the older brother of my one of my best friends when I was 13. He was one of the worst people I have ever had the misfortune to meet, and made my friend’s childhood a living hell. He was a control freak, bordering on the sociopathic, and would use any opportunity to smack his younger brother over the head after booming the words ‘head down, boy’. They shared a bedroom together, and he laid his rules out in what he called his ‘rules of the room’ – an arbitrary set of rules that included obedience, never touching things on his side of the room and never swearing. A breach of the rules of the room would always result in aforementioned ‘head down, boy’ followed by a smack across the head. He did this to me a few times too.

There was one occasion when I was playing a video game at my friend’s house and I messed up on the game and said the word ‘shit’, thus breaking one of the fabled ‘rules of the room’. ‘Head down, boy’ was uttered, and I ignored the request. He uttered it again, and I continued to ignore him. He stepped over the room and twisted my arm behind my back and jolted me up to my feet: ‘I said head down’. I turned on my feet and punched him twice in the face, once in the jaw and once on his right cheek and told him to fuck off. He hit me over the back of the head anyway, so I kicked him hard in the shin and took my leave before he could catch me to issue a thorough beating. He never took a hand to me again after this. What made it so much worse was that he was probably about 18 or 19 at this point, and was clearly far too old to be striking out at 13 and 14 year-old boys for swearing or touching his stuff – what a pathetic individual he was (and still is by all accounts).

As much as an abusive piece of shit as he was, I made the effort to stay on his good side. We had a lot of common ground between us: I was in air cadets, and he used to be; I liked playing Command and Conquer and X-Wing on the PC, so did he; we also shared a similar taste in music, and when he was in a good mood he would let me play some of his CDs. He had some great stuff including Tool, the Orb, Fugazi, Helmet, and Future Sound of London. An album that really struck me at that time was Helmet’s Betty, and in particular the drum sound on the album combined with the ‘Dropped-D’ guitar riffs and melodic vocals. I’d been introduced to metal bands over the previous years, but these were bands like Slayer, Megadeth and Iron Maiden - Helmet sounded fresh and different, and seemed to move metal into new and exciting realms.

Betty opens with ‘Wilma’s Rainbow’, its intro sounding like the band slowly kicking into life, with out of time guitar chords and harmonics ringing out before everything kicks in: massive guitar riffs, thundering bass guitar, and those drums with their piercing snare sound and a kick drum that could burst your ear drums. The angry vocals that we saw on Helmet’s previous albums are replaced by something more subdued, but no less powerful in their effect. There is more of an emphasis on melody and tone than rhythmic grunts and barked slogans. ‘I Know’ kicks off with a drum solo that leaves you with little doubt that the sound production on the drum-kit is absolutely stunning. Each part of the kit is clear and crisp: the bass drum boots you in the gut, the cymbals reverberate like waves in a storm, and the snare penetrates your very being. ‘I Know’ could easily be compared to offerings by band like Prong were it not for the jazz-tinged riffs that act as bridges between verse and chorus, and the sumptuous guitar chords that are allowed to breathe during the chorus. ‘Biscuits for Smut’ departs from Helmet’s hardcore roots: they drop the heavy guitar distortion, throw in a funky bass-line, and add filters to the vocals – all no-nos in the world of hardcore. ‘Milquetoast’, a song the featured on the soundtrack to every goth’s favourite film The Crow, is just an awesome piece of rock music, with its subtle vocals in the verse drifting across a driving bass-line, before being almost drowned by waves of effect-laden guitar. ‘Tic’ harkens back to Helmet’s earlier work with slow deliberate guitar hooks and growled vocals during the verse, but the mood changes during the chorus which mixes things up with intense thrashing music combing with fluid and subtle vocals. ‘Streetcrab’ verges back towards the sound of ‘Wilma’s Rainbow’ with stop-start rock riffs and a huge chorus. ‘Beautiful Love’ showcases the musical talents of guitarist Rob Echeverria as the instrumental track begins with intricate jazz noodling that would fit better on a George Benson album than that of a hardcore metal band. The jazz tones are, however, quickly drowned out by the rest of the band who play loudly over the guitar, which can faintly be heard continuing to play very low in the mix. This is very much like a hip-hop skit in musical form. ‘Speechless’ is another excellent rock track which is held together by a melodic chorus and chaotic guitar solo. ‘The Silver Hawaiian’ sounds like Faith No More at their funkiest, with almost Flea levels of slap-bass indulgence. Album-closer ‘Sam Hell’ is pure country, with its rattling steel strings and slide guitar riffs punctuated by vocals that can only be described as a Les Claypool drawl – a great way to end the album, but one that thankfully didn’t point to Helmet’s musical direction going forward.

Helmet had gained a bit of a reputation through their first two albums, Strap It On and Meantime, for an uncompromising aggressiveness. What I like about Betty is that Helmet jettisoned violence and brutality in favour of intelligence and subtlety to create an excellent album. Perhaps the departure of guitarist Peter Mengede before Betty was recorded had a lot to do with the change in direction. Mengede’s replacement Rob Echeverria was definitely more tight and polished with his guitar work than his forerunner.

This one is definitely staying on my shelves.

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