90’s

All posts tagged 90’s

Soundgarden circa 1994. Left to right: Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Kim Thyall and Ben Shepard. Photo courtesy of rollingstone.com.

Soundgarden circa 1994. Left to right: Matt Cameron, Chris Cornell, Kim Thyall and Ben Shepard. Photo courtesy of rollingstone.com.

By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)

What happens when you take the dark sludgy riff of Black Sabbath, combine them with the mystique and high-pitched shrills of Led Zeppelin, add in a pinch of psychedelia before slamming it through a filter of punk? Soundgarden is what happens.

Formed in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden were among the first of the “grunge” acts. Combining the sounds of early 70’s British heavy metal and early 80’s American punk and alternative, Soundgarden had carved a unique niche in the local underground, quickly attracting the attention of emerging Seattle record label, Sub Pop.

By the late 80’s, Soundgarden were the first of their peers to land a major record label deal, signing with A&M. Their second LP Louder Than Love sold over 250,000 copies and their follow up, 1992’s Badmotorfinger, would go gold.

By the time of Badmotorfinger‘s release, the grunge movement had already begun to sweep American like a plague. The Glam/pop metal of the 80’s had all but disappeared by the early 90’s, as a more cynical, intellectual and anti-establishment musical movement took hold. And ttrailing in the footsteps of breakthrough Seattle acts Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden were poised to soon take the reigns.

By 1994, grunge was at the height of its popularity. So much so, that many of the genre’s pioneers had declared the scene “dead.” However, that wasn’t the case, especially for who was arguably the genre/scene’s founding entity.

Soundgarden took the alternative scene by storm in 1994, releasing their iconic masterpiece, Superunknown. The album was their most concise work to date, with songs that showcased both maturity and a fierceness of a band at the peak of their prime. The sound and production, thanks largely to producer Terry Date, was thick and full, yet the raw primal energy is still very obvious. It’s well-produced without being over-produced. Overall, Superunknown stands as a clear indicator that Soundgarden had grown comfortably into their own skin.

The album kicks off with the droning sludging riff of “Let Me Drown,” a common sentiment of the grunge mentality. However, the second track almost trades the trademark angst for a Zeppelin-esque crooner with a funky, yes funky, bass line on “My Wave.” The single “Fell on Black Days,” follows, with implementations of odd time signatures and Eastern rhythms, the song may be the most diverse grunge radio hit of all time, as it still can be heard all over active rock radio. From there, the heavy and undeniably catchy riffs of “Mailman” and “Superunknown” before leading into the mystically manic depressive “Head Down.”

The next track would prove to be their biggest, perhaps definitive song. “Black Hole Sun,” with its use of the common loud-quiet-loud grunge formula with a psychedelic twist, has become a staple for rock radio and the band’s live set list. The accompanying music video, complete with face-distorting and the death of the planet, became an instant hit, and is widely considered one of the most artistic videos ever produced. Following it is the almost equally-iconic “Spoonman.” Written about a local performer named Artis the Spoonman, he is featured on both the track and music video.

Two of Superunknown‘s darkest tracks, “Limo Wreck” and the single “The Day I Tried to Live,” begin side two with a slower and darker lyrical take. The punkish “Kickstand” breaks the tension before “Fresh Tendrils” and the doom-y “4th of July” encompass the listener. Another Eastrn-style track “Half” leads the album into it’s bleak closer, “Like Suicide.”

Superunknown has been regarding a critical and commercial success, being widely well-received upon its release, selling over nine million albums worldwide. Lyrically, Soundgarden has always flirted with the dark side, and this record is no exception to that. However, despite it’s use of odd time signatures, dark lyrical themes and tendency for not-so-easy listening, the album skyrocketed into the mainstream. By the late 90’s/early 00’s, rock radio was full of acts highly influenced by Soundgarden and Superunknown in particular. From Days of the New’s use of alternate tuning to acts like Staind, Seether, Puddle of Mudd and so on and so forth, the influence of Soundgarden is too obvious at times.

Soundgarden released the slightly less-successful Down On the Upside in 1996 before calling it a day in 1997. Drummer Matt Cameron went on to play with Pearl Jam, where he is a current full-time member, and Chris Cornell went on to release three solo albums and front the supergroup Audioslave from 2002-2007 with ex-members of Rage Against the Machine. High demand for a reunion was asserted by fans and promoters alike and by 2010, Soundgarden announced a reunion tour and performance at the year’s Lollapalooza Festival. They stated that rather than reuniting for money, they waited until the time was right. In 2012 they released King Animal, to positive reviews and reception.

This year, Soundgarden will embark on a 24-date U.S. tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Superunknown alongside Nine Inch Nails (also celebrating a milestone album) and Death Grips.

All in all, the influence of Superunknown is one of the most long-standing of it’s generation. Contemporary post-grunge and metal acts site the album as a key influence, and it’s singles are still heard all over mainstream radio to this day. As a rejuvenated Soundgarden soldiers on into a new decade and new era, Superunknown remains an archetype for what the band can achieve in the future.

 

No AlternativeBy Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)

During the early 90’s, many music fans in both England and America felt at a for loss words for identifying what was coming out of their post-punk and/or underground rock music scenes. That music eventually became known as the Alternative genre. College Rock Radio seemed to gather the remnants of music that American kids liked, but it was not very cohesive scene-wise/sound-wise.

Inevitably, a movement was bound to take place. In England, the Northern movement, “Madchester,” developed due to the Joy Division-influenced aftermath with journalist Tony Wilson at the helm.

Similar mass communication mediums such as radio, TV and magazines started to again coin genre names in America shortly thereafter. What was going to be the new “thing?” During the very fevered formation of this new genre, the compilation album, No Alternative, was released in 1993 with a whole host of acts that before didn’t seem related, yet conceptually, they came together on this album and it made sense. Alternative, in the broadest sense, was born out of various sounds of rock and folk (song-writer) genres and on the whole seemed to encompass more thought-provoking lyrics than what was on the radio at the time; similar to their post-punk and folk-punk predecessors.

The most popular offshoot of the genre became Grunge (especially in Seattle), but Art Rock artists from other parts of the country were at first often overlooked in this more broad Alternative genre due to media and playlist regularity. Artists such as Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins and Pavement were on the peripheries in the early 90’s, probably due to their more obvious Classic Rock influences, but eventually they enjoyed a steady fan base growth which was more correlated to the aforementioned Northern English music movements such as the “Madchester” movement and of course the ever repeating Brit Rock revivals.

English music show host, Jools Holland, became more influential in a way of picking up where Tony Wilson left off and connected the dots between the American and English scenes throughout the 90’s and the 00’s, reminding us of what and how the term Alternative really came about. An alternative type of music to what was typically played on top 40 rock radio. This is how and when the term became full circle. And now fans expect such artists to almost transcend the induced sub-genres and be beyond a genre, to be something different yet each having THEIR OWN cohesive sounds. Ironically it is NOT about a scene.

Observe.

As well as the aforementioned artists and Picks of the Week leading to this article I know present some wonderful examples that have been often overlooked after the initial Alternative heyday was over. These artists have also really have gone beyond genre and in a way back to what “Alternative” meant, what rock and roll means and what songwriting is. And many of these are from their founding scene giants were from. (Northern England, Seattle.) Just goes to show.

England:

Ocean Colour Scene – The Day We Caught the Train

The Unbelievable Truth – Solved

America:

Jets to Brazil – Chinatown

Pedro the Lion – Live on KEXP

Melvins. Left to right, singer/guitarist Buzz "King Buzzo" Osbourne, bassist Dale Crover and drummer Mike Dillard.

Melvins. Left to right, singer/guitarist Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne, bassist Dale Crover and drummer Mike Dillard.

By Rick Pollo (Editor-in-Chief)

In the early 1980s, not many could have predicted that Seattle would be Generation X’s Liverpool in terms of a rock and roll renaissance. Sure, groups like the late-60s garage rockers The Sonics and 70s arena champions Heart call the city home, but a collective scene was yet to put Seattle on the rock and roll map.

By 1984, hardcore punk outfit Black Flag released there slowed down, Black Sabbath-inspired album, My War. The same year, bands like Swans and Flipper began to emerge, also introducing a slower and chunkier approach to aggressive angst-ridden punk rock. This sound was clearly ahead of its time, but left a considerable impression on the likes of Seattle outfits Green River, Soundgarden and the Melvins.

Originally formed as a hardcore punk band, the Melvins quickly emerged as one of Seattle’s most influential and ambitious acts by the mid 80s. Their unique blend of punk rock ethos, sludging heavy riffs and experimental tendencies helped spark a musical movement that would come to be known as “grunge.” Lead singer and guitarist Buzz Osbourne once stated that the band’s sound was “Black Sabbath-meets-Captain Beefheart.” Undoubtedly a perfect summation of Seattle’s perhaps most unsung and influential grunge act.

By the late 80s, the Melvins’ influence among the Seattle scene was blatantly obvious. Groups like Tad, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone and Nirvana all were experimenting with drop tuning and searching for the heaviest and muddiest guitar tones they could find. For a moment, Seattle provided a renaissance in rock and roll, and the paradigm shifted. Over produced balladry was out, and noisy, angry punk and alternative was in. With the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and several of the Seattle bands finding major label deals and mainstream success, the Melvins were at an epicenter of a movement. However, there break wasn’t easy.

As Seattle bands were getting signed left and right, the Melvins further pursued their musical ambition, shifting deeper into left field and away from what grunge had came to be known as, in the mainstream at least. They went heavier and sludgier, proving to have more in common with doom metal than Lollapalooza. Still, predecessors like Kurt Cobain continued to site their influence and eventually, the mainstream took notice. By 1993, at the height of the grunge scene, the Melvins signed their first major label record deal with Atlantic Records, and recorded their masterpiece, Houdini.

Houdini was unique in several ways. Much to the band’s dismay, it will probably always serve as the go-to starting point for the band. Sure, earlier albums like Bullhead and Lysol are classics in their own right. But Houdini is the first creative peak in an ever-climbing career of innovation.

Originally set to be produced by Kurt Cobain, Houdini is one of the most primal and raw, sophisticated and heavy and underrated alternative releases of the 90’s. Kicking off with droning doom riff of “Hooch,” it is immediately evident that the Melvins were not going for the sounds of Nevermind or Ten, but something more along the lines of the first records from Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath. Signature sludge tracks like “Night Goat,” “Lizzy” and “Honey Bucket” serve as templates for nearly every doom, sludge and stoner rock act that followed, making even Kyuss sound like The Spin Doctors.

Houdini also has it’s share of quark. An unlikely cover of Kiss’ “Goin’ Blind” sounds nothing like the original, yet ultimately caught the eye of Gene Simmons, who often performed the track with the band during the time of its release. Tracks like “Sky Pup,” “Hag Me” and “Copache” are well representations of the band’s experimental side, an aspect of their sound they would also later explore and expand upon.

Commercially, the Melvins were never quite able to top the success of Houdini. Artistically, it was only a launching pad.

As fellow Seattle acts spend the later half of the 90’s and early 00’s dominating rock radio, the Melvins dug deeper into the underground, earning a very loyal following. Despite their lack of commercial exposure, critically acclaimed records like Stoner Witch and Honky resonating hard with their dedicated fan base.

By the late-90’s they were dropped from Atlantic Records but eventually signed to Mike Patton’s Ipecac Recordings. From there, a golden age of experimentation ensued. In 2003, they collaborated with ambient artist Lustmord for the Pigs of the Roman Empire LP and in 2004-05, they collaborated with Dead Kenndys frontman Jello Biafra and Tool guitarist Adam Jones for the LPs Never Breathe What You Can’t See and Seig Howdy! After a successful period of collaboration, they returned to their roots for the sludgy and trippy Senile Animal in 2007.

This year, the Melvins celebrate two milestones: The 20th anniversary of their landmark Houdini and 30th anniversary together. They chose to celebrate in true Melvins fashion by releasing two artistic achievements within the same year. Earlier this year, they dropped a collection of covers titled Everybody Loves Sausages featuring reworkings of tracks by artists as diverse as Queen, Venom, Throbbing Gristle, The Kinks, David Bowie and Lead Belly. Their latest jaw-dropper, Tres Cabrones, was released in October.

As the Melvins enter their fourth decade, they show no signs of slowing their innovative sound. That innovation has proven very influential, with sound that is impossible to properly categorize. Not only has Kurt Cobain and members of Tool announced their love for the trio, but contemporary players like Mastodon, Crowbar, EYEHATEGOD and The Dillienger Escape Plan have all sworn by the Melvins.

As trends came and went, artists risen and fallen, they continue forward, in a linear but upward direction, blowing minds and provoking thoughts at every peak.

Shoegaze act Catherine Wheel circa 1993. Photo courtesy of MTV.com.

Shoegaze act Catherine Wheel circa 1993. Photo courtesy of MTV.com.

By Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)

The early development of the Shoegaze genre lies somewhere in the post-punk haze of the 80’s. Gothic/Ethereal artists such as Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain began to fuse elements from uncategorized and/or “art” rock acts like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr. The name itself evolved because artists, namely guitarists, where using a lot of effects on their guitars through the use of various pedals and stomp boxes and they seemed to be “gazing at their shoes” during performances.

Though many of the genre’s predecessors often used a lot of layering or effects in their music via multi-tracking, in live situations they were more sparse. Live performances from Shoegaze artists differed in many instances because they rarely changed the arrangement or the effects, although the layering was done in a more ethereal or blurred out way to begin with on the records, it was a bit easier to cope with live. Moreover, live versions were even more exaggerated because of this. Shoegaze greats Ride and Catherine Wheel are prime examples of this practice.

By the 90’s, a sister sub-genre called Dreampop surfaced with artists such as Slowdive and Lush. Their music featured the noise of Shoegaze, however was a bit more poppy and melodic. Even Brit Rock/Pop bands like The Stone Roses also experimented with many of the budding trademark sounds with their single, “I Wanna Be Adored” in 1991.

However, 1991 was the year that the first significant stride was made in Shoegaze. One of the first acts to be described as both Dreampop and Shoegaze, the influential My Bloody Valentine, combined airy female vocals and guitarist Kevin Shields’ distinctive sonic wall of guitar noise. In fact, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless had a great impact on many guitarists in the 90’s, not just in Shoegaze, but Alternative in its broadest sense. Billy Corgan and James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins are notable followers.

The torch was in a way, carried most authentically to British band, Catherine Wheel. Shoegaze became full circle and the trademark sound was “nailed” by them in 1993 with their second record, Chrome. This is arguably the cornerstone record in this genre with its dreamy and catchy melodies sung with Gilmour-esque soothing ethereal vocals and sonically lush (but often still aggressive) guitars and concepts which vary throughout. This record is also one of the most unsung and overlooked recordings of the 90’s in general due to the quick shift in focus to the rise (and fall) of Grunge.

However, not all was forgotten. Catherine Wheel went on throughout the 00’s, inspiring new fans of other genres to not only go back and listen to their old records, but discover My Bloody Valentine’s, Loveless too, and draw from a perhaps small collection of Shoegaze records. Even more so, the quality that spanned Smashing Pumpkins’ range of influences, as well as successful English Alternative/Rock acts such as Radiohead and Pulp, had therefore inspired yet another Brit Rock Revival.

In the Shoegaze lineage, little known but amazing American artists such as Starflyer 59 (often referred to as a Space Rock band) and Hum plugged away through the 90’s. In more recent years, the independent two-piece act, Have a Nice Life, emerged with one of the greatest Shoegaze mixtures ever, especially on their debut album, Deathconsciousness. The presence of Dreampop-y melodic hooks, spacey textures and even darker undertones, hark back to the beginning of this genre’s early Post-Punk/Goth influences. (Refer to some of the artists mentioned in last month’s Gothic Rock article).

In addition to the previous Picks of the Week, which I used introduce this origins of this genre I now include for your enjoyment:

Catherine Wheel – Black Metallic. From recommended album, Ferment. 1993

Starflyer 59 – Hazel Would. from recommended album, Silver. 1994

Hum – Stars. From recommended album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut. 1995

Have a Nice Life – Bloodhail. From recommended album, Deathconsciousness. 2008