When Interscope Records cashed their chips on a most unconventional heavy metal band
Meantime was never ever going to be the next Nevermind.
I’m sure if you told a twenty-something fan today that Helmet’s sophomore masterpiece was expected by some to commercially compete with Nirvana’s breakthrough, they’d be confused. Rightfully.
But the rather surprising success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” somehow caused record labels and their A&R departments lose their damn minds, back in ‘91-92. It felt like there was a race to sign bands with any traction at all in the indie world. On the strength of their very abrasive (but solid) Amphetamine Reptile Records debut, 1990’s Strap It On, the new, cool major label Interscope Records signed Helmet, giving them a million-dollar advance.
Interscope, distributed through Atlantic Records, was also the home of edgy San Francisco trio Primus, and they soon signed Nine Inch Nails, Rocket From The Crypt and the Reverend Horton Heat. For a minute, it was a major label that specialized in music based in the underground. Of course, there was the expectation that this new strain of music – generally lumped under the category of “alternative rock” – would make money. Fair enough, record labels don’t put out albums to be charitable. But in the post-Nevermind world, the expectations were probably increased considerably.
And, for a time at least, the A&R depart-ments seemed successful at igoring their radio promo departments – and the accountants. Record labels were seemingly in competition to sign the hippest, most underground bands. This was in contrast to radio, of course: they were, as ever, concerned curating playlists of songs that would keep listeners listening through commercial breaks. It’s easy to imagine commercial radio gatekeepers asking the Interscope label reps “What else do you have?” Eventually, the answer would be the very Nirvana-esque Bush. They needed music that would blend in well, before and after Nirvana; what they didn’t need was a string of equally original and abrasive bands.
But let’s forget about the context of the era. Meantime is a awesomely brutal album. It may not have sold tons of CDs and tapes, but it made a huge impact. Helmet was a band of dudes who were obviously influenced by metal, but didn’t fit in with that scene, and didn’t try to. The guitars were doomy like Tony Iommi’s, albeit much faster. Page Hamilton’s vocals were reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne’s, and added a haunting sense of melody to their songs, as Ozzy’s did with Sabbath. And John Stanier’s relentless drums were the secret weapon: Every beat felt like a punch to the face. They were mixed almost like the drums in a hip-hop song.
Of course, Sabbath wasn’t Helmet’s only influence; These guys really sounded like they came from the underground hardcore punk scene, and they looked and felt more like Fugazi or Sick of It All than they did like the Birmingham metal legends, or anyone else in the metal scene. Their songs were earthbound and so was their look: they all sported short hair and just dressed like regular dudes. Even the flannel of the Seattle bands of the time seemed too loud and flamboyant for Helmet. Their music had the economy of hardcore too: this wasn’t a band showing off their chops with guitar and drum solos.
And they didn’t need any superfluous elements. Despite the fact that they were waaaaay too abrasive for radio, their songs were really catchy. It wasn’t just raw aggression, there’s not a bit of fat on Meantime’s 10 tracks. And it sounded grea: they clearly used their big advance to make an awesome sounding album that did justice to classics like “In The Meantime,” “Give It,” “You Borrowed” and their near-hit, “Unsung.”
VIDEO: Helmet “Unsung”
Meantime would be a major influence on Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven – interestingly, the biggest metal purists of the ‘90s were influenced by a band who were anything but purists. Of course, most of the nu-metal bands that followed cite Helmet as a major influence, for better or worse. In the early ‘90s, even with all the hype, Helmet was mainly playing clubs and small theaters. And, funny enough, they just announced a tour with like-minded ‘90s no-nonsense metal/hardcore hybrids Clutch and Quicksand, that will take them across America’s clubs and small theaters.
But while Helmet and their tourmates might wish they were playing in slightly bigger venues, none of them ever seemed to chase the money, and there must be a satisfaction in knowing that their fans are true fans, and not showing up to hear radio hits.
All three bands have the respect of the fans, and showing up to shows with a Helmet shirt is still a badge of honor, a secret handshake of sorts with other fans who dove deeper than radio playlists in the ‘90s.
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