The waif is in
She’s chlorine clean and portion fed
Feed the dog
Slop the hog
Shine the Baptist and debark the log (I Know)
I always found this lot a bit intimidating. I knew Helmet were heavy – I mean I LOVED their collaboration with House of Pain on the Judgment Night soundtrack, but there was just something a bit spartan and joyless in their presentation, less human than the Seattle crew, they all had short hair for Chrissakes! So I’m a recent converse to the cause, I only bought Helmet’s 1994 album Betty last year but it was easily one of the very best things I bought all year.
I always thought the cover of Betty, their third LP was a work of disquieting genius – a wholesome, hygienic looking blonde lady dominates the cover with a basket of roses, a glimpse of a perfectly tended yet contained garden on the back cover, a waterskiing lady (the same one?) inside the gatefold showing plenty of flesh but coming on as breeding stock rather than erotic. The faded blanched colouring of all the photographs evokes a David Lynchesque 1950s; or is it a decade earlier? are these images Aryan propaganda? wholesomeness reverted, subverted, perverted by context? knowing the bile and nihilism etched into the grooves inside the sleeve it’s hard not to think in those terms. Or is it all just good innocent fun? maybe we shouldn’t debark the log just yet.
Within seconds of the first track ‘Wilma’s Rainbow’ cranking up, the music couldn’t be anyone else – there’s an oddness in the introductory chords and that crunchy riffing is unmistakably Helmet. This is such an un-rock sound though, there is something in the way the drums are recorded an echoing and coldness and that atonal guitar solo is just spot on and buried in the mix where according to the Rules of Rock (RoR for short) it just shouldn’t be. This is heavy, driving, riff hungry music that has mutated straight from an interesting petri dish cross-contaminated with jazz, no wave and hardcore – it’s unforgiving and unfriendly. It fascinates me.
Helmet’s origins are interesting, Page Hamilton moved to NYC to study jazz guitar at the Manhattan School of Music, played with/for Glenn Branca before forming Helmet, signing to the mighty Amphetamine Reptile Records and going his own crunchy way to Valhalla*. On Betty you get to hear more of the weirdness at the edges than you do on the previous two more straight-ahead LPs, apparently folk liked it less for that but it is precisely why I like this one more. Listen to the awesome ‘Biscuits For Smut’** and you start to realise that it’s funk, Gang of Four taken to heavier depths.
Or if that’s not enough to sway you try the brilliant, menacing Tom Waits-y ‘Sam Hell’, you want scrap metal swamp blues don’t you? exactly.
Or if that’s not enough for you cue up the menacing, brilliant Zappa funk of ‘The Silver Hawaiian’, which is just tailor-made to soundtrack a really tense knife-edge drug deal in a black and white indie flick.
Or if that’s not enough for you whack on the jazzcore headache that is ‘Beautiful Love’ but don’t be fooled by the Django Reinhardt stylings it does get very wonky.
But for all the comely deviant charms Betty flashes at us, it is the more straight-forward raging of ‘Rollo’, ‘Clean’, ‘Milquetoast’^ and ‘Tic’ that just drop my jaw every time I hear them. Heavy enough to swing with ‘tallica and, umm, ‘gadeth there is a taut highly strung, well-sprung discipline about them too. Big props have to go to the rhythm section of Henry Bogdan and John Stanier for this they just seem to duck and weave like a boxer looking for an opening to stretch you out on the canvas. I’ll take all the cold heaviness they can deal me too.
Heavy Bettal at its’ bust.
*I missed out his tenure in Band of Susans there, but hey.
**a fair trade in my book …
^such a brilliant sneering title!