Review Summary: Betty is the culmination of a band realizing their potential
In 1991, the music industry and the corporate rock machine both were head on its heels to replicate the mind-blowing success of rock acts like Nirvana. As the story goes, an unknown and nerdy band named Helmet were the perfect candidates to sky rocket up the charts . Almost in an instant, the representatives of Amphetamine Reptile records were overwhelmed by the uncompromising support and success of “Strap it on”. After this, the Amphetamine Reptile flag-ships had just released a brilliant and astounding major-label debut in “Meantime” and had just signed on to Interscope for a major label deal fixed with major label money. While Meantime had sold a million records, it still fell short of expectations (for Interscope at least), Betty was a second go for the band. While Page Hamilton (mastermind behind the bludgeoning monster that is Helmet) wasn’t willing to admit it, Helmet was a strike away from setting the world on fire.
Avant-Garde influences are permeated throughout the record in the form of pioneers akin to minimalistic maniacs like Glenn Branca and other musical legends, including Jon Cage all the way through to John Coltrane. This can be seen quite prevalently in the smorgasbord of musicality that is seen on Betty. Helmet manages to incorporate these seemingly disparate influences into their music while still defining it with their trademark crunchy riffs and pounding drums. While carving out a niche through crooning vocals over stop and go rhythms, the band delves into territory alien to the typical metal outing. But while the group proved its mettle (and metal) through this formula, Betty taps the potential on the shoulder and that potential runs like a steam rolling train, mixed with anger, loose-fun and outright brilliance. Helmet have broadened their scope and have added emotional depth, and a sense of wittiness to their music added onto the complete brute strength they are known for.
But all of this musical diversity would be left in vein if Helmet wasn’t able to combine it with the band’s surge-n-stomp groove. Many of the songs on “Betty” feature atonal guitar akin to noise rock, layered chord progressions and little subtleties that are integrated seamlessly, all of which are foreign to hard rock. Thankfully, Helmet doesn’t forget their crushing and straight-forward past which can be seen on songs like “Milquetoast”, “Clean” and “Overrated” and even “Street Crab”. Helmet also doesn’t forget to have fun in the process of all of this over-the-top ferocity. Songs like the whimsical “The Silver Hawaiian”, “Sam Hell”, and the downright silly “Biscuits for Smut” all manage to maintain a sense of humor whilst tackling a variety of musical influences (banjo-blues in the case of Sam Hell). Despite this slew of experimentation, in an ironic twist, Betty contains the most accessible songs Helmet has recorded to date. The most recognizable tracks including "Milquetoast" and the single "Wilma's Rainbow" are chock full of catchy and invigorating hooks and melodic brevity not seen in Page Hamilton’s voice, which is quite refreshing. Page Hamilton’s vocal ability has increased quite a bit ever since the release of “Meantime”, where he opts to add a melodic tinge to the bludgeoning music rather than the trademark growl of Helmet’s previous albums. This gives the record a bit of a two-sided nature to it, one for the simple head banging and second for the deep and emotional cunnings seen in more experimental and venturing musical endeavors. The jazzy side can be seen quite generally in the first half of “Beautiful Love”, which starts off with a beautiful and soothing jazzy riff courtesy of Page Hamilton and quickly transcends into a minute of cacophony which leads flawlessly into “Speechless”.
Betty is the defining of a band realizing their potential. Helmet recognize that lashing out completely isn’t the most effective way of achieving sonic euphoria, instead building tension and anger by holding a bludgeon or a riff can be equally as satisfying and unlocks a completely new realm of catharsis (used best in “I Know”). Mid-song sonic obliterations round out the mix as well and prove to be equally as satisfying and cathartic. Unfortunately, Betty set the precedent for the band’s ultimate commercial downfall. Too bad it will be remembered for the wrong precedent.