Music History

25 Years Ago: Helmet Unites Riff and Rhythm on ‘Meantime’

Helmet became "one big rhythm section" on its 1992 masterpiece

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25 years ago today, New York metal pioneers Helmet released their seminal album Meantime. The album’s groove-oriented riffs and slow-stomp tempos have made Meantime into a template that is frequently copied, even today. While it failed to vault Helmet into the ‘next Nirvana’ territory that record label executives were desperately trying to manufacture at the time, Meantime carved a groove in hard rock that many have followed.

In 1990, Helmet dropped its debut LP, Strap It On, on underground noise rock label Amphetamine Reptile. The sound the band had forged was informed by Amphetamine’s roster of avant noise bands – but Helmet brought a singular percussive style to its songwriting. Helmet bassist Henry Bogdan summed up the band’s sound when he said, “Helmet is one big rhythm section.” (SPIN, September 1992).

The following year, Nirvana’s Nevermind changed everything – and had record labels scrambling to duplicate its success. According to SPIN magazine’s August 1992 review of Meantime, “Nirvana’s overwrought success screwed up the entire pop-punk-metal ecosystem and sent A&R madmen scurrying like slobbering vermin into the underground, rabid from the scent of territorial pissings. Not too surprisingly, they found Helmet.”

All this ‘next Nirvana’ stuff may sound a bit inflated in hindsight – but on a recent episode of the Culture Creature podcast, Quicksand leader Walter Schreifels confirmed the industry mood of the era. “Nirvana came out,” Schreifels explained, “and the music business were looking for bands that had some sort of independent success. They were looking for new Nirvanas. … The major label feeding frenzy, is what they called it – everyone looking for their kind of cool Nirvana band.”

Ultimately, Helmet signed a three-album deal with Interscope Records for a million dollars. Meantime was recorded in a mere two weeks. The album was recorded at New York studio Fun City – except for ‘In the Meantime,’ which was recorded at Chicago Recording Company. ‘In The Meantime’ was recorded by Steve Albini and later remixed by Andy Wallace.

Meantime is a showcase of Helmet’s muscular attack and mechanical precision. The band found a lethal combination by syncing drummer John Stanier with Hamilton’s monster drop-D riffs, which arrive in thick slabs. Hamilton’s jazz training shined through in his improvisational solo-squalls, like the one in ‘Iron Head.’ As a vocalist, he employed both harsh barking and melodic singing. Album standout ‘Unsung’ seemed to crystallize Helmet’s strengths on Meantime. It is said that ‘music is the space between the notes,’ and the main riff pattern of ‘Unsung’ is composed of big chords and dramatic pauses in equal measure.

The cover of ‘Meantime’ uses David Plowden’s 1979 photo of a worker at a steel mill furnace.

Helmet’s influence was heard in ’90s contemporaries like Chevelle and Filter – and the sound of Meantime is enjoying a resurgence today. Bands like Wrong, Bummer, and Whores are building on the foundation laid by Helmet, Jesus Lizard and other AmRep bands. In fact, those three bands (Wrong, Bummer, and Whores) recently toured together – and their show at Brooklyn venue Saint Vitus felt at times like a Meantime tribute concert.

Meantime may be 25 years old, but this monolith of heaviness looms larger than ever in the landscape of hard rock.

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