While contemporaries were mucking about in swamps of feedback and messy sludge-rock power chords, this New York quartet formulated a metal-bore sound so clean, crisp and martial that some wags adopted Teutonic accents when discussing “das precision rock sound.” Guitarist/singer Page Hamilton mastered the art of discipline as a foot soldier in Glenn Branca’s guitar army (he was also, briefly, in Band of Susans) and found a remarkably astute way to recast some similarly avant-garde playing for the moshpit set.
Strap It On instigated a furious record company bidding war. It may take a little imagination to envision volume-intensive, minimal meditations like “Sinatra” and “Bad Mood” as fist-pumping anthems, but Hamilton’s drill-instructor bark and ambivalent lyrical soundbites have an undeniable visceral appeal. The burnished veneer is broken occasionally by the wiry, slightly less restrained leads of Australian guitarist Peter Mengede. An auspicious debut.
The group took a qualitative leap forward with Meantime, an album that earned Helmet the approval of commentators no less shrewd than Beavis and Butt-head. “Unsung” and “In the Meantime” both reveal a bit of development in the frontman’s Ozzy-like vocal intonations, but it’s still the immediacy of the riffs Hamilton and Mengede mete out — albeit clinically — that drives this juggernaut. Hamilton also seems inclined to allow more insight into his terse lyrical observations. “Unsung” derides easy outs for those with flawed egos: “…to die young is far too boring these days.” Beneath the guitar sparring, bassist Henry Bogdan (who played in an embryonic version of Poison Idea) and drummer John Stanier maintain a chilly, lock-groove rhythm that changes precious little from track to track — which actually works to the songs’ advantage. Although slightly more user-friendly, Meantime still owes more to LaMonte than Angus (Young).
Mengede left Helmet after Meantime‘s release (to lead the burly fuzz quartet Handsome with ex-Quicksand guitarist Tom Capone), but he can be heard on both releases that bear the name Born Annoying. The EP reissues both sides of the band’s 1989 debut single (including the title track), adding two songs from its first demo tape. The full-length appends six tracks, including the previously unreleased (and mighty impressive) “Geisha to Go.”
On Betty, reconstituted by the arrival of guitarist Rob Echeverria (formerly of New York hardcore pummellers Rest in Pieces), Helmet made a conscious — and not entirely well-advised — decision to advance beyond the primary colors of the past. Throwaways like the delta-skronk “Sam Hell” and the deconstructionist take on the jazz standard “Beautiful Love” are the most gratuitous offenders, but there’s equally little to recommend in the standard-issue metal grooves of “Wilma’s Rainbow” (the title of which takes the Flintstones fixation one step too far). The gnashing “Milquetoast” and a few others possess some of the old vigor, but Betty, by and large, crumbles into rubble.