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In 1990, the New York based alternative metal act Helmet unleashed their debut album, Strap it On, through the noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile Records, a label known for releasing music from the Melvins and The Jesus Lizard, among others. While Helmet's debut did have a leaning for the noisier side of things, there were strong hints of the then-up-and-coming grunge scene masked underneath post-hardcore sentiments and massive staccato riffing. Why does this even matter? Well in the early nineties, the growing grunge scene was becoming the most marketable commodity in music, as 1991 saw major labels trying to cut a deal with anyone even remotely associated with grunge.
Somehow Helmet got swept up in the drama, landing a huge deal with Interscope records, who fronted them, as the story goes, one million for the recording of their next album. The result of that record deal is one of my all time favorite metal albums of the 90's, Meantime, which was released in 1992. Although Helmet never really achieved widespread fame, this was their breakthrough album, as it landed on the Billboard charts at #68. It's also Helmet's only album to be certified gold in the United States, having sold over two million copies to date. Riding on the coattails of this album, the band managed to snag a few spots on soundtracks throughout their career (like The Crow, Johnny Mnemonic and The Jerky Boys).
While I have a huge soft spot for Helmet's swansong album, Aftertaste, I think that Meantime is, truly, the band's best work. I use swansong because even though Aftertaste is technically not the band's last album, what's been released since their reformation doesn't nearly match the quality. Betty, this album's follow up, showed Helmet forging a more melodic, experimental path and with Aftertaste the band returned to a forceful, grunge-laden style with tons of hooks, but the dissonant heaviness and staccato riffing were cut back from Meantime. Surely, most people who have heard of Helmet, and even most of those who are into the band, came across their music via the heavily rotated on MTV track “Unsung”. While the rest of the album really isn't as melodic as that track, it really gives a good feel for what the band was all about; thumping bass, grooving drum beats with one of the loudest snares you'll hear, Page Hamilton's distinct vocals and catchy, hook-laden guitar riffs that brush the edges of grunge, hard rock and heavy metal.
But that grooving, somewhat alternative style isn't the only style dancing through Meantime. The album opens with a monstrous wall of sound in the form of “In the Meantime”, with its rangy, fast paced riffing and rolling drum fills. We get a taste of Page Hamilton's heavier vocals, which sound like a gruff bark. It's two sides of the same coin, really. Where the magic is, though, is Helmet's merging of these two elements into a cohesive beast that spans nearly forty minutes.
Tracks like “Better” combine the grooving, heavy handed riffing and Page's barked vocals with some melodic accoutrements while he shouts “get out!”. “Give It” shows a slower burning groove to the catchy guitar riffs and pummeling drums, while Page's clean vocals are spot on. It's a mix of both worlds, the clean and the dissonant, and it's remarkable when both come crashing together in a grand upheaval of grooving, rollicking swagger with a bitter, metallic edge, like on “Turned Out”, with possibly the grooviest, catchiest, sink-your-teeth-into-est riff of the album. Meantime is an album full of hooks, heavy hitting guitar riffs and one of the best rhythm sections of the time period.
If you've never listened to Helmet before, this is a great starting point, but really you can't go wrong Aftertaste or Betty either. Meantime features ten tracks of hard hitting alternative metal and is an album that deserves to be played from start to finish. Although Helmet is still alive and kicking, this is where it's at. Despite million dollar contracts and grunge band bidding wars, Helmet's sophomore album is one of the heaviest and most grooving of the scene. Over twenty years after its release, Meantime remains essential metal listening material.
Written for The Metal Observer.
A lot of people regard this as Helmet’s best album and they have a good point. This album is much easier to get into than their previous one and thus I find it much more enjoyable. All of the songs featured are at worst decent while most are very good.
In The Meantime is a good opening track and has a nice main riff. Ironhead is where the album really gets going. That main riff always gets my head moving whenever I hear it! It’s definitely one of my favourite songs on this album. I also notice the quality of the production improves quite a bit from In The Meantime which sounds strangely muted in comparison. This is due to that particular song being recorded at a different studio by a different producer. It’s not terribly distracting but I thought it would be worth mentioning.
The other song I really like is Turned Out which is one of my favourite Helmet songs. This is one of the most energetic songs on here with heavy riffs that never fail to give my neck muscles a good workout! It also features one of my favourite guitar solos on the album. The pause right before the end of the song is also a nice touch.
FBLA II is the sequel to the previous album’s FBLA and it rocks just as hard as the original. Only this time it has much better production and has another great guitar solo. Unsung was the main single from the album and actually became a minor radio hit. I don’t like it as much as most of the other songs on here although I do like the frenzied drumming at the end. Give It has a memorable bass intro and Page Hamilton actually tries to sing for a change. He’s not very good at it but it fits the music surprisingly well.
I really do think this was one of the most underrated bands of the 1990’s. Even today, they still don’t get the recognition they deserve. This, along with the next album, is one of the 1990’s most overlooked albums.
Of all the albums released by Helmet, this is easily their most metallic and unrelenting musically in its stark and straightahead manner. And it was one of the few "alternative" albums I really liked back in those days since it had catchy and strong riffs and attitude to spare as well as being well-produced and just plain mean in delivery.
Most of the alternative type bands back then mocked and ignored metal (even though many of them were shitty attempts at metal--but with no solos because they couldn't play them, so this was why they poked fun, out of jealousy), but Helmet embraced it full-on, adding free jazz style overtones and influences as well as gloriously noisy and chaotic (not to mention lengthy) solos worthy of Messrs. King and Hannemann in their prime. And the ringing, metallic snare drum sound only adds a more industrial edge to the wall of sound Helmet unleashed on this album.
The deliberate feel Helmet had on much of their material also influenced a whole new generation of "hardcore" bands who felt this was a new way to be heavy but not be metal. The surging feel that they had was like unto a tank moving over the bodies of its enemies, and from the wild and head-turning intro of "In The Meantime" to the ending riffs of the album, you will indeed be flattened if you give this album a chance.
For standouts, look to the title track with its thunderous wall of guitars for a primer in the essential Helmet sound; pile-driving drums, the guitars in question, a growling bass that was heard loud and clear unlike most metal, and Page Hamilton's screaming, roaring vocals that radiated sneering contempt as well as utter psycho mania. He sounded pretty good when he sang cleanly as well, but for me his screaming psycho style is archetypal and an important part of Helmet's sound.
"Iron Head" has the first solo of the album, over a driving syncopated riff that is actually rather funky, and a wild ride it is--how can I not like a man who has the stones to start off a solo with 8 bars of elephant mating call sounds? "Turned Out" is another driving and propulsive song with a nice placement of silence at the end before they roar back into the riff, and "Unsung" is a good little turn in the more melodic side of things.
This album often showcases Henry Bogdan's mean-ass bass rumble both in intros and in bridges, making for more relief in the wall of sound, and it only makes the overall soudn heavier when the guitars come roaring back in. Page and co-axeman Peter Mengede generate an amazingly dense din and racket that will have your ears ringing for a good hour or so after each listen.
Definitely look this album up, as it came out on Interscope and still ought to be readily available. It's not your typical metal album, and for that reason, as well as the guitar part of things being a fresher approach than usual, I recommend this album quite a lot.