How Helmet Broadened Their Sound on ‘Betty’
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Right off the bat, with its pleasantly eerie cover of a filtered photo of a woman kneeling on a lawn in what appears to be ’50s suburbia, the third album by New York City alt-metal quartet Helmet announced a departure from the spartan rigidity and single-mindedness the band made famous with their 1992 sophomore effort, Meantime. Where Meantime solidified guitarist/frontman/bandleader Page Hamilton’s staccato riffing style as its own distinct (and instantly recognizable) musical language, 1994’s, Betty captured Hamilton and the rest of the band taking more chances, experimenting and incorporating texture to a greater degree than on any other title in the Helmet discography.
Over the course of the 14 songs, Hamilton, drummer John Stanier, second guitarist Rob Echeverria and bassist Henry Bogdan were able to locate elasticity and groove in Hamilton’s riffs in a way the band have essentially never matched otherwise. Additionally, Hamilton incorporated melody and harmony into his vocal approach, departing significantly from the tuneless bark he’d favored on previous work. As such, Betty stands out, to this day, as both the most accessible and the most challenging of Helmet’s albums.
Released in the same season as landmark offerings by Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots and Failure, Betty certainly provided an invigorating summer soundtrack alongside those other records. By the same token, the sparkling, waterfall-like layers of guitar distortion and dense mix (courtesy of producer Andy Wallace) give the music a timeless quality that transcends its ’90s alternative context.
Speaking to Diffuser over the phone about the making of the album, Echeverria explained that expectations were high for Helmet’s third release after Meantime had been certified gold. “When I joined the band [in 1993], it was right at the end of the Meantime tour, so everything was really riding high,” said Echeverria. “We all got the gold records, the band was really happy about that and it was all good. I remember going home and sitting for months while Page wrote the record and then us getting together in the fall to rehearse.”
Working with hip-hop producer T-Ray (who’d helmed “Just Another Victim,” Helmet’s collaboration with House of Pain for the Judgment Night soundtrack) and Martin Bisi for guitar tracking, Helmet recorded Betty at three different New York studios. Echeverria has fond memories of making of the album, even as it dawned on him that Hamilton’s autocratic leadership style didn’t leave room for much contribution from the rest of the band. Nevertheless, Echeverria remains very proud of the results, particularly the guitar tones. (He doesn’t remember how much guitar doubling he and Hamilton did, but he’s “pretty sure” that his rhythm guitar is on the left channel of the stereo field.)
According to Echeverria, though, support from the record label started to wane shortly after the album’s release. “When we’d show up to play on tour, especially in Europe, there was nobody there,” he said. “So we went from this big high to big lows.” Alas, from the label’s perspective, since Betty failed to match the half-million sales of its predecessor, it could be considered a commercial disappointment.
But oftentimes, it’s the unexpected detours on an artist’s journey that contain the most riches. For fans who know Helmet from MTV’s heavy rotation of the video for the Meantime single “Unsung,” Betty contains myriad deviations into new territory that reward multiple listens. From the shuffling jangle of “Biscuits for Smut” to the warped rural porch blues of “Sam Hell” to the reflective psychedelia of “Clean” and “Overrated” to the bastardized hip-hop of “The Silver Hawaiian” to the rubbery, ground-shifting vibe of “Vaccination,” Betty stands as a testament to how far an artist can go when they push against the limits of their sound. It also represents the only time that Hamilton, who has otherwise fixated on musical restraint throughout his career, really let his hair down and took some chances.
When Helmet followed-up Betty with the decidedly more direct and stripped-down Aftertaste in 1997, Hamilton almost seemed to apologize for deigning to deviate from his usual formula. Apparently, time has afforded him with some perspective, as Helmet performed Betty in its entirety on tour in 2015. More than two decades later, the album still continues to reveal its charms.
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