Helmet’s Betty, which turned 15 yesterday, commanded my youthful obsessions in a manner since unmatched. I had the CD, the “Biscuits for Smut” CD single, and the gatefold 2×10″ — even though I had no turntable. That hung above my TV. I pored over interviews with Page Hamilton and hung his Guitar World cover on my wall. For a school class, I made an animated video for “Beautiful Love.” My bass playing style comes almost entirely from Henry Bogdan’s on Betty. When other teenagers drove around, they blasted G-funk. I bumped Betty.
Most cite Meantime as Helmet’s apex. This is understandable — “Unsung,” its video, the striking artwork. But for me, Betty holds up better over time. Meantime worked through a sound, Helmet’s trademark dropped-D roar. Betty turned that sound into actual songs. Its production was also better than Meantime‘s — big and crisp. John Stanier’s snare was gloriously and insanely pitched up. Ting! How strange Betty was. It had dropped-D crushers, roiling funk tuned to A7 (“Biscuits for Smut”), mauled jazz (“Beautiful Love”), bluesy banjo (“Sam Hell”), and a Zappa-goes-funk bit (“The Silver Hawaiian”). To top things off, it had a hip-hop producer, T-Ray (who sampled Sabbath on Cypress Hill’s “I Ain’t Goin’ Out like That” — see here).
Betty‘s best asset was its big bottom. It is probably the bounciest metal record ever made. The drum intro to “I Know” harkens back to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” People cite Pantera and Machine Head for groove metal, but Helmet out-grooved them all. Metalheads are justifiably leery of groove, as it often comes saddled with stupidity (e.g., rap metal, nu-metal). But Hamilton sings in Lydian mode on “Speechless,” for Pete’s sake. Nu-metallers don’t do wolf-howl skronk like in “Tic”‘s rideout. I don’t know how a jazz musician found the restraint to play economical, downtuned metal, but it was one of the best things ever to happen to me.