A couple of years ago, Helmet (or frontman Page Hamilton’s current version of Helmet, for those who can’t see it as quite the same thing without original bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier) headed to the UK to tour their 1992 breakthrough album Meantime, putting the tracklist in reverse so it ended on the magnificent opener In The Meantime. The London show was well executed but because it was in the large, somewhat soulless Electric Ballroom in Camden, and far from sold out, it lacked the full intensity everyone present knew this band are truly capable of.
Two years on and it’s a different story entirely. This time round, as jazzy warm-up music hangs in the air before the band take to the stage at the insanely early time of 7.45pm, the room is rammed with fans of meaty mid-90s alt metal, a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation vibrating through the crowd.
It’s partly because they’ve chosen the more intimate Islington O2 Academy, but mainly because this time around Helmet are playing 1994’s weirder, wonderfuller Betty in its entirety, and album that weeded out the fairweather MTV fans and was clutched to the bosom of the truly loyal as one of the band’s finest hours.
It’s the perfect setting for them to come out swinging and they do so with aplomb, the band striding out first and pounding into the opening bars of a mountainous-sounding Wilma’s Rainbow, swiftly followed by the rangy figure of Page Hamilton, with a look on his face that suggests a mixture of delight at the howls of approval that meet him and determination to deafen each and every one of us before the evening is out. From the opening raw roar that erupts from his throat, there’s no let up for the next two hours. Betty was Helmet’s experimental album, the one with the jazz flourishes and blues lines that showcased the astonishing talent of the musicians involved.
Page’s fire remains undimmed, but it’s a joy to see how tight the band he’s put together have become, their low-slung instruments taking a beating while the songs are blasted out with the precision of Swiss watchmakers. And by the time they wring the last drops from album closer Sam Hell, they’re pumped with adrenaline, veins bulging in Page’s neck, so they keep playing, delving deeper and deeper into that wonderful back catalogue, as if the frontman is on a mission to reclaim his kingly position as alt metal innovator. Well before 10pm, it’s all over, making way for a cheesy Halloween club night, but the reverberations of a truly special show will be crackling through the atmosphere for a long time to come.