Helmet’s Betty: The 1994 SPIN Review
This review originally appeared in SPIN’s August 1994 issue. In honor of Betty’s 25th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.
To borrow the old joke, Helmet has one song, and they play it over and over again. It’s a good song, as sonic assaults go—a rumbling, bottom-heavy groove that lays jagged Metallica-meets-Big Black riffing over a stormtrooper drumming—but it gets a mite tiresome over an entire record to say nothing of release after release. Of course, it’s not like the band didn’t give ample warning of its single-minded intentions; Helmet did entitle the opening cut on its 1990 debut album, Strap It On, “Repetition.”
Rather than leavening its thick-as-a-brick schtick with some tempo variation, and leaving the riff-recycling to its adherents (among them Stompbox, Wider, and Rage Against the Machine, which sounds sort of like Helmet as fronted by Ranking Reger), Helmet has consistently replicated its patented sledgehammer crunch, with diminishing results.
Betty, the third album by the New York foursome, is yet more of the band’s relentless thump and grind. Guitarist Peter Mengede has been replaced by Rob Echeverria, but otherwise the Helmet machine chugs on without a glitch. This is heavy metal without the theater, head-banging music for people without hair.
While the basic Helmet song remains the same, singer-guitarist Page Hamilton’s vocals actually have undergone an evolution, and a welcome one at that. A graduate of Minneapolis’s Amphetamine Reptile charm school, Hamilton usually grunts like a missing link, or barks like an uptight drill instructor; in “I Know,” when he bellows “Feed the dog! / Slop the hog!,” he might as well be talking about steers and queers. But all that screaming must have dislocated Hamilton’s larynx, because most of Betty’s vocals, with a couple of exceptions, are mellower if not melodic, expanding on the developments of Meantime’s “Unsung” and “You Borrowed.”
While the kinder, gentler Hamilton is a nice change of pace—don’t get me wrong, versatility and progress are good—the effect of the (almost) harmonics on top of the dissonance doesn’t quite mesh, like a combination of peanut butter and chocolate and horseradish. But though Betty’s experiments (along with the attempts at singing, the underwater-sounding “Biscuits for Smut” puts a burbly rather than brutal bass out front, while the slide guitar of “Sam Hell” creates a kind of East River delta blues) aren’t fully successful, it’s nice to know that Hamilton and company aren’t just sitting on their big signing bonus.
Maybe next time they’ll even come up with a real pop hook.
Rating: Whoa! Slow down, pal! This album is pretty good, but you can’t buy everything in the store. Can you?