Even two decades after its release, no band has ever managed to put out a record quite like Betty, the third studio album by New York alt-metal aficionados Helmet. A combination of factors makes the LP so unique: To begin with, Betty is in many ways a direct product of its era, and not just for the titular reference to Clueless-coined slang. Having achieved the kind of critical and commercial success with the release of 1992’s Meantime that today’s pop landscape would never allow, Helmet cobbled together an erudite amalgamation of blues-and-jazz-infused hardcore authenticated by the classical-guitar training of Helmet’s principal songwriter and only constant member, Page Hamilton.
Despite the discordant, aggressive riffs and dense basslines that place Betty solidly in the realm of metal, there are myriad points in the album’s 41-minute span that diverge from the genre’s common tropes, from the seesawing riffs that open “Wilma’s Rainbow” to its bluesy ending in the banjo-picked “Sam Hell.” So while reunion tours have become so ubiquitous as to be slightly suspect at this point, if ever there was an album worth playing in its entirety as a celebration of its inception, Betty is it.
Now well into his fifties, Hamilton has kept pretty nimble, touring consistently since re-forming the band in 2004. Last year, he played 40 Betty anniversary shows across Europe with Helmet’s newest lineup, featuring Dan Beeman on guitar, Dave Case on bass, and Kyle Stevenson on drums. Last night at Bowery Ballroom they kicked off their long-awaited U.S. leg of the tour, which includes two more NYC shows this weekend. Moments into the set, it was clear that Hamilton still has it. Trim and austerely dressed in dark clothes, he made even the most complicated rhythms seem as simplistic as “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The only question was whether or not the guitar tech would be able to keep track of Hamilton’s eight axes.
Though Stevenson and Beeman in particular looked like they might’ve only been pre-teens when Betty was released, they proved to be both agile and dedicated to the material. Case seemed to be having the time of his life, swinging his green bass toward the rafters. The ensemble roared through Betty‘s fourteen tracks, and if there were mistakes, they were indiscernible to the enthusiastic crowd. Alternately shouting and dropping into his signature monotone, Hamilton’s vocal prowess was still pretty remarkable, even when it seemed his larynx might pop from his throat like a tightly coiled spring. Tension is one of the things Helmet does best, after all. Hamilton knew he was taking risks with his songwriting back in ’94, and that bravado carries on and cultivates a punchiness in his performance.
As the night went on, Hamilton gave in to a little reminiscing, recalling the blizzard he drove through with a drunken Polish cabbie to record Betty in a studio now shuttered like so many other New York institutions. He also gave a shout-out to a beefy guy in the front row who’d gotten kicked out the last time Helmet played the Bowery. But for the most part, the sold-out crowd was less rowdy than one might expect, thinning drastically as the second part of Helmet’s nearly two-hour set wore on. Comprising material spanning the entirety of the band’s catalog, it became clearer just what a singular gem Betty is in terms of its variety of flourishes. By comparison, the rest of the set seemed to bleed from one song to the next, the distinguishing characteristics of each blistering solo lost to those in the audience who weren’t guitar heroes themselves. Classics from Helmet’s debut LP Strap It On like “Distracted” and “Blacktop” brought cheers and fist-pumps and maybe even a little pogoing, but the first five songs from Aftertaste, played in the order they appear on the album (so that Helmet wouldn’t have to do an Aftertaste reunion tour in 2017, Hamilton joked), had the sad effect of clearing the room even further.
That was a bit of a shame, considering that those songs seemed to be the ones the band most liked playing. They provided some shining moments of truly beautiful shredding, hypnotic repetition, and deft, solid drumming, effortlessly showcasing Helmet’s talent and sheer joy at being able to revive these songs so resoundingly. While virtuosic solos are too often in danger of veering into pretension, for Hamilton it seemed less about showing off and more about having fun with the challenge of it all. They may not be any fan’s favorite, but those songs are just as indicative of the things that make Helmet Helmet. These are the qualities that inspired others, for better or for worse, to start their own post-hardcore bands, though none could really match Helmet’s precise style.
The diehards who stayed for the ensuing encore were encouraged to call out requests, though most of these were rejected due to their length, difficulty, general shittiness (someone asked for a song written in the studio that has never been played live), or being a lame Deftones cover of a Helmet song (in the case of “Sinatra,” the cover of which Hamilton admitted he’s never actually heard). Finally, they settled on “Iron Head” and launched into an assaultive rendition of the Meantime tune, which faded into a truncated version of “Just Another Victim.” Some semblance of a circle pit formed, though with most of the audience past or pushing 40, it had the vague hint of a mandatory Capoeira class at the world’s most metal YMCA. No doubt a few of those folks are very, very sore today.
Before ending the show with traditional closing number “In the Meantime,” Hamilton noted the number of women in the audience. “Normally it’s a sausage fest,” he said, grinning. It could be said that Helmet’s one true signature, and the thing that makes Betty so enduring, is the breaking-down of expectations. For once, it was nice to see Helmet having their own expectations broken down, too.
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