IF you were a teenage metaller in the early 90s but you didn’t fancy the double denim and patches look, Helmet were a hell of a lifeline.
Loads of teen musical epiphanies involve a glimpse at a transcendent cosmic parallel universe – Bowie singing Starman on Top of the Pops in 1972 being the most over-used cliche of them all.
But seeing four clean-shaven New York kids with crew cuts, plain tees and buttoned-up shirts turn up as the heaviest band on late-night metal show Raw Power one Friday was a brilliant double for me take among growling metal monsters like Phil Anselmo and Tom Araya.
The song in question was Unsung, the lead single off Helmet’s second album Meantime, whose down-tuned and tightly-wound riffs were offset by Page Hamilton’s clean vocal melodies and oblique lyrics – and his pink guitar while we’re at it.
The album opener In the Meantime is an even bigger visceral thrill, with a chundering intro that sounds like a rhino spinning in a cement lorry, before it’s knocked into shape by John Stanier, a decade before he’d be taming Battles with his drums.
The one-chord chug in the verses has Hamilton roaring and contorting his voice, fully derailed after the relative politeness of Unsung.
A trained jazz guitarist, Hamilton’s discordant, wiry solos are all over Helmet’s albums, but on In the Meantime they’re reduced to filthy belches and squalls here and there, offsetting the insistent, minimal circular riff that pins it all in the corner.
Helmet were signed to major label Interscope in the wake of Nevermind, with the promise of a ‘New Nirvana’, but after one spin of this there would’ve been a few facepalms in the boardroom. Still, it’s their only album to go gold and get a Grammy nod, and it’s one of the most uncompromising major label releases from the alt-rock gold rush of the early 90s.