It was both what and not what you think. It came on the heels of the thrash explosion, and it signed the death warrant for LA glam “metal.” It was a few great nobodies followed by a universe of self-important somebodies who missed the point.
But for anyone lucky enough to have stumbled onto it before it blew a hole in the sky, it was a fresh take on a world full of tired formulas.
I listened to a lot of alternative radio in the few years before grunge, and at that point it was more about the labels and the cities than the styles. Seattle was another stop on a tour of the Boston, Berkeley, Connecticut, New York, DC, Ohio, LA… Salt Lake (yes, there was a small but furious SLC scene) and labels like Dischord, Amphetamine, SST, Revelation, Relativity, Earache/Combat, and of course Sub Pop.
Sub Pop handled several bands, not all of which were from Seattle. But the pawn shop equipment and pot-latch attitude seemed to center on Seattle, an emphasis Kurt Cobain punned at when he wrote “disease-covered Puget Sound” in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.” We can think of it as the “Seattle” sound, but even at the beginning Sub Pop was home to bands from elsewhere.
The point here being that The Seattle Sound that went on to be grunge was not grunge at first. Alice in Chains was not a grunge band when Facelift was released, nor were Melvins on Gluey Porch Treatments. The initial grunge sound was fairly diverse, ranging from Screaming Trees’ Birds-meet-Zombies and Mudhoney’s Fang-meets-Blue Cheer to The Fluid’s Cheap Trick-meets-New York Dolls. In fact, it seemed the whole point of the Seattle sound was stripping away the gloss of 80’s music and revealing the tortured ghosts of hard rock that were trapped beneath.
And it worked. Those ghosts possessed the music world and slayed the pretenders. To be there at the time was to be thrilled that the good guys were winning. The folks that grew up on The Who and The Beatles and Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. The folks that watched American metal, rock, and punk get subsumed and metabolized by MTV and Madison Avenue. Folks like me.
Granted, we the fans, like Ziggy’s of old, took it too far. But grunge was not the problem. It was the solution.
Great, you think, but what does that have to do with metal?
In a previous article the ever readable Craig Hayes took a deep dive into grunge’s undergrunge; the bands that never quite caught that wave. Obviously there were some fantastic acts in that article. Malfunkshun alone is worth whatever you spend to hear it. And just as obviously, there is no shortage of love for bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains among the metal inclined. What is there left to say?
Well, as I have made my way through various nearly-metals in my ongoing series of pointless ruminations on metal from non-metal bands, it occurs to me that one of the reasons I loved grunge—the early version, late 80s grunge—was that the bands were hitting a lot of the same targets bands like Aerosmith and Sweet hit in the early 70s. While definitely not metal, Mudhoney made some massive, deceptively sloppy metalish music, as did Tad, Fluid, and L7. Nirvana wandered into metal territory on the Bleach album and again on In Utero. And hell, Alice in Chains was a metal band, full stop.
For metal purposes, I am again focusing on a couple of songs by a few bands. But unlike past articles where I ask you to consider non-metal bands’ specific material in a modern light, in this case I am not conceding that these bands were not metal. Instead I am suggesting they went through phases where their output was metal, even if the band themselves went on to be something else, or had started as something else. In many cases the bands in question would probably physically fight me for saying they were ever metal. In each case I will physically fight them back. They just made the music. I get to decide what kind it was. If they wanted to stay precious they should have kept it in the basement.
Ever notice everyone on the internet is a tough guy? I certainly am. Look at these pythons. You gonna fuck with me, kid? I will feed you your own spleen.
I am also going to avoid using bands the aforementioned article used. Read that article and discover those bands. It’s worth your while. I will be dealing with heavy hitters, as it were, but the ones that were formative, that created the sound all the Bushes and Lives and Candleboxes would coattail in on. As such, I will not be mentioning Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, or Smashing Pumpkins. And Alice In Chains is a metal band, so deal with that.
My choices are Nirvana, Tad, and Soundgarden, then.
I am not going to stand here… sit here… and tell you I was not a giant Nirvana fanboi. I was lucky enough to have seen them twice and met Kurt Cobain once. He was a nice guy—carried no airs and, considering the circumstances (which is a story in and of itself, but for another time), very gracious. I met him a few months before Nevermind came out, and he and the band put on a fucking incredible show that night. There was no doubt at all the band had the goods to be enormous, but none of that came from self importance or an eye to the trappings. It came from earnest delight in putting on a fun show, playing cool songs, and just being there.
The next time I saw them was for the In Utero tour, and it was a different, altogether more subdued experience. The band was less intense, less active. The lineup was essentially the same as the MTV Unplugged show, including second guitarist Pat Smeer and cellist Lori Goldston (I believe; I may be mistaken though) on a couple of numbers. It was a great show, but it was not the rambunctious, ferocious Nirvana of my previous viewing. This was the adulter version. Less Who and more Neil Young. Less sweaty club and more “remember the sweaty club?”
Nirvana the act was what it was, but Nirvana the band changed over time. One might say that the In Utero Nirvana were the chosen version, the one everyone in the band decided on. The earlier versions of Nirvana were accidental versions that came together and fell apart. The version that included Chad Channing on drums was a somewhat different animal than the one with the inevitable Dave Grohl, and from that version comes one of my quasi-metal picks: “Sifting.” For the Grohlier version I am going with “Milk It.”
Bleach the record was a revelation among revelations. When I brought it home the Monday after the Saturday night I heard it on the aforementioned radio station, I had no idea what was actually waiting for me. I had heard “Blew,” “School,” and “About a Girl” and that was enough for me to take the long trip to SLC and Raunch Records to pick it up. I told my brother it was like someone had taken Steven Tyler and Neil Young, forced them to be a band, and tried to produce them like a Metallica record, failed, but somehow came up with a fantastic sound anyway.
None of that accurately reflects the sound of Bleach, of course, but I had a limited vocabulary to work with. Grunge was not yet grunge, and this band was not punk or hard rock or metal. They were all of the above. Everything was weird. Sloppy, but tight where it mattered. And there was an eeriness about the whole thing, exemplified by the final track on the album, “Sifting.”
“Sifting” starts with a medium-paced, front-loaded bass drum shuffle and snare on the four, lazily walking you toward the massive pawn shop sound of Kurt and Krist’s strings. As with the rest of the record, the main musical idea was a dark riff, played over and over on top of disjointed drumming, and topped off with incoherent, ghostly gravelly vocals which build up to a scream / sung chorus that made you want to scream / sing along. But “Sifting” was even darker than the rest of the record, and set a mood of dread only enhanced by Kurt’s impossible-to-decode lyrics.
The riff is just an oddly played chord and a stumbling decline without much thought as to whether the decline makes any musical sense. It is devil-may-care and without any real emphasis; the drums never accent or relent. But it has weight to it. Kurt’s amp draws every crinkle of sound from his guitar, mirroring Brian May’s setup in texture if not in spirit. The guitar groans and gurgles and mixes with Novoselic’s bass to make a basement froth of unease. Krist’s always interesting bass playing catches us in the pre-chorus as he helps delineate Kurt’s slight-of-chord phrasing. The chorus itself has both players bending their notes down and giving Cobain’s tortured “Don’t have nothing for you!”’s all the room they need to blast into your memories.
It’s an utterly strange, utterly tense and utterly satisfying song that colors Nirvana’s later material. This was not a band of mopes, nor was it a lazy band of Xers. This was cold and calculated to be unnerving—to crawl under your skin and force you to think about things you promised yourself you wouldn’t. All without a single lyric you could fathom. It was an aural haunting.
“Milk It” is similar in that the tension it creates has more dread per measure than most Cannibal Corpse songs. It is different, though, in that it builds on Nirvana’s ability to wind up for the lyrics and then explode for the chorus. But for this song the chorus literally seems to detonate when it hits. After successfully goofing for the intro, the chorus riff is Ramones-as-heyday-Lyle-Alzado. It’s a wall of chord. And Dave Grohl’s signature drumming style is used to spectacular effect. Unlike Channing’s work on “Sifting,” Grohl accents everything with SPACE. He start / stops with so much force he becomes the lead instrument—the sound you follow in a carpet bombing to get you through it alive.
Again, nothing Kurt is wailing makes any sense to a casual listener. And again, no one is left in much doubt as to the point of it all. He wants you to feel disconnected and unsure. He wants you to feel panicked and self-aware. Watching yourself react to your own temper tantrum. And all with a rhythm that demands your fealty. But this is not something you can just sing / scream along to. Kurt is leaving it all on table this time.
In both of these songs, the thing that nuzzles up to metal is the control the musicians have over the material. Nothing about Nirvana is virtuosic. Quite the opposite, in fact. But that is a decision. It’s not just random for random’s sake. It’s a strategy to get a listener to a certain place, mentally. To put you in a folding chair and beat the living shit out of you with sound. Nirvana had other songs that did other things, but these two did this thing and they did it well.
Tad is either your favorite grunge band or one you never really listened to. Tad was tremendous, and that is not a joke about the singer’s weight. Tad, at least on the first few albums and EPs, were easily the most consistently ferocious of the Seattle scene. They took Black Flag’s atonal approach to everything in the universe and added a heaping dose of big beat rhythm and heavy metal riffing. Tad Doyle’s vocals could range from monotone angst to monotone rage to monotone insane screeching, taking the Henry Rollins ethic and pushing into a strange, Tom Araya-tinged serial killer space that oozed auto-mechanic-on-a-rampage. It was fairly unique.
Musically, lead guitarist Gary Thorstensen loved his wah wah and whammy. A lot. Like fellow Seattlers Mudhoney, the lead work in Tad’s songs tends to come at any time and without any fanfare. It exists as part of the song structure. Kurt Danielson’s bass was distorted and his style was to flog it like it had disobeyed a direct order. Finally, drummer Steve Wied could quickly transition between Tommy Lee and Keith Moon, depending on how out of their minds the band wanted to sound.
For their songs I am choosing two early favorites. One, “Cyanide Bath” from God’s Balls, and the other “High On the Hog” from the Salt Lick EP. You used to be able to find these two smooshed into a single Sub Pop CD, but this release often left songs from God’s Balls off, and that is a crime. I was lucky enough to have owned them individually for a time, and I would recommend you own them that way if you can.
Having made it through side one of God’s Balls the first time, I was firmly on board. From “Behemoth” to “Sex God Missy,” the ride was equal parts St. Vitus, Mountain, Rollins Band, and Jerry Reed. Tad could thrash pretty well, as “Behemoth” showed aptly, but they had a real fondness for Nyarlathotepian crawls like “Pork Chop” and “Helot.” So flipping the album over (yep, vinyl before it was cool) I had essentially sussed the band out. And yet, for all that, “Cyanide Bath” threw me for a loop.
Moving from a purely 80s industrial Clink Clank Clunk on top of a kick-first four-four drum beat into a stoned-as-hell funk guitar lick, the band literally crawl into this tune as though they just rolled out of bed and realized they were in a recording studio. The funk lick becomes the main riff, the rhythm section cements everything down and Doyle and Thorstensen do their best Otis the Drunk imitation, all beneath Doyle’s raspy, no-melody matter-of-fact vocals.
It’s a great riff, but you are kind of thinking maybe the band shot their wad on side one. Then the chorus hits. And I mean it hits. The riff splits, the rhythm quarters and the band is suddenly awake, aware and abhorrently muscular. If you can get all the way through the first chorus without banging your head at least once, I will absolutely think less of you as a person. It’s a “War Pigs” moment—one of those perfect storms of crunch, grit, SPACE and menace. And it is welded down by Danielson’s bass slinking the main riff in the spaces, almost like an illusion.
This is not a new concept in metal, obviously, but the flannel ethic meeting the hearty bash of pure aggressive power kicks it into a very special place. So it went on the follow-up EP, Salt Lick. But Salt Lick was not like God’s Balls in any respect other than it was still obviously Tad.
Salt Lick was far thrashier, briefer and probably the closest grunge came to an unrelenting metal record. Every song took a riff and a chorus and just beat the ever living shit out of you with it. There were no funky crawls here. I could take any track from this 6-song EP and use it as an example of grunge’s metal aspects. In fact, the songs, while perfectly memorable in themselves, all run together in the listening. And they all share the above-mentioned abhorrent muscularity. These are beefy, testosterony, sloppy, and crushy.
The only reason I am choosing “High on the Hog” over any other of these six is that it has probably my single favorite non-lyric line in all of music:
Disco Inferno motherfucker, got the high cal / low cal, gimme that harmonica solo AGH!
This single line runs through my head a few times a week, but so does the breakdown from “Potlatch,” the bass / drum intro to “Wood Goblins,” the opening lyrics of “Glue Machine”—moment after moment, all driven by the constant pummeling boogie rhythms and splattergrunge guitar work. What really, really delivers the pain is the percussive nature of Tad’s performances here. This album really feels like an aural beating. It’s just West of grindcore; in fact, Sarah Palin can probably see it from here. Which is metal enough for me. And should be for anyone else.
Bringing me to Soundgarden.
Once again, I am not going to sit here and pretend I was not abjectly in love with Soundgarden from the first time I heard them. Three tracks—two from Louder Than Love and one single—introduced me to the band on the aforementioned, forever hallowed radio show: “Loud Love”, “Ugly Truth,” and “Toy Box,” respectively. Of these, the critical one was “Ugly Truth,” so I will choose that as one of my picks. The other will go back a bit further to the Ultramega OK record: “Beyond the Wheel.”
Last in first out. “Beyond the Wheel” exemplifies three main aspects of Soundgarden’s metal side: The RIFF, the rhythm, and the voice. The riff for this number is one of those dead-simple “Smoke on Water” gargantuas that you can’t believe no other band had come up with before. It’s like seeing your own blood: It’s always there, but when it appears you feel astonished.
The down-tuned leviathan crawls up and writhes about on the F a few times before the chorus marches it back down, with only a little shuffle to catch your breath. Kim Thayil’s SG is as Sabbath as any guitar has ever been, and the band is wearing their love of that band on their sleeves.
But it’s the tribalistic pounding of Matt Cameron that takes that blood-simple riff and turns it into a truly compelling and memorable tune. Always off kilter, Cameron’s drop of the last beat in the chorus makes an already great moment even more memorable, proving that he is one of the best “catchy” drummers in the business. He plays drums like Malcolm Young played rhythm guitar.
Volumes can and have been written about Chris Cornell’s voice. I can count on one hand the number of vocalists who not only can cover three octaves, but that I want to hear cover three octaves. Chris is one of those fingers, and this song was Chris doing exactly that. But not JUST that. He uses that range to take you—the pathetic, monotoned bastard listeners—on the journey beyond this wheel thingy with him.
His voice had real power at whatever octave he was riding, and on “Beyond the Wheel” it’s the power that turns this from a really cool tune into a classic piece of metal. You feel the build-up in your glands when the low register lamentation begins. You feel the wall at your back when he adds his own harmony vocal. You know what has to be coming up, but when it hits, it still comes at you like a tiger’s claws. Chris takes his voice up and hits every note he needs to hit to make the lyrics perfectly satisfying. He loses nothing and gains your soul.
His performance rivals Halford, Gillan, or Mercury in both control and execution. It’s a one-of-a-kind vocal moment in a thrilling song, and it screams metal, whatever else you want to hear in it.
“Ugly Truth” has a special spot, as I mentioned above, in being the song that made me go out and find everything by Soundgarden I could. It, like so many songs in these articles, has a context, but this one is perhaps a little broader. I was in junior high and high school in the early 80s, and there was a definite sound to that period. Call it the “post-Boston” sound. Everyone had a distortion pedal, so all their guitars sounded pretty much the same. Moreover, that fucking “Maniac” song and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” all had this same guitar sound. Distorted guitars were becoming a little overdone. But it was the added distortion—the pedal driven stuff pioneered by Tom Scholz—which had taken over.
(As an aside, Tom Scholz and Boston ushered in that sound, and guys like Eddie Van Halen cemented it into the consciousness of all us 80s’ morons. But I am not now nor ever going to slam Boston or Van Halen for it. Boston’s first two albums were fantastic, if overplayed. And Van Halen’s first, third and fourth albums are metal classics everyone should own. Fuck anyone claiming otherwise. The overused part was after-the-fact, just so you know.)
By the time bands like Metallica and Anthrax had taken the pedal distortion to a better place, that sound was as ubiquitous as Beatles melodies in the 70s. Enter “Ugly Truth.”
Soundgarden was not the first late 80’s band to re-explore head-driven distortion, of course, but they were maybe the first to hearken back to the joy of 70’s Marshal heads creating the distortion due to power / volume. It gave Thayil and Cornell’s Gibsons character, and they knew it. They traded palm muted root riffs for the glorious un-funked riffs of Kiss, Deep Purple and T-Rex, and they let the Les Paul and SG ring.
Beginning with another of Cameron’s signature catchy, drunken drum beats, the guitars seem to hold hands and go running gaily through a field of bleeding ears. Playing with harmonics and complimentary harmonies, the two create more interesting music with just the D chord than Ratt created over three entire records.
Cornell’s voice helps us find the center of the song, though it is not one of his virtuoso performances—all the more important for that. His lyrics are college dorm philo, but hit home all these years later just the same:
I painted my eyes / ugly isn’t what I want to see
I painted my mind / ugly isn’t what I want to be
I don’t mind, truth don’t look that good on me.
Chris had a real feel for expressing depression, and a way of relating how it feels to have to live inside a person you hate. That spoke to me personally on many of his tracks. But moreover, his voice almost always complimented the riffs. He was a natural lead vocalist and a phenomenal singer, even when he kept it in check.
Where a solo would normally be, Thayil just trills up and down the riff a couple of times, then joins Chris in locomoting the D chord on top of bassist Hiro Yamamoto and Cameron. Then the rhythm section disappears and it’s just the guitars, layering on top of each other, climbing to a crescendo as Cornell reminds us that “money can’t give wheat the truth takes away.”
It’s that moment that draws me in the most. It’s the epitome of guitars played so overwhelmingly that the listener feels transported. It’s over the top, but completely intended. And because it is head distortion, it feels feral / animal / primal, and that is metal as all the fucks that ever fucked.
Chris and Kurt are gone now—two of my personal favorites from that scene. Two I met, briefly, and two who were, in my excruciatingly limited view, among the coolest motherfuckers in the game.
Dave Grohl is a rock star, but not that kind of rock star. He loved what he did when I saw him; it was obvious. He still does; it’s obvious. Fuck the drugs or the groupies or the distractions. He plays rock music. I will always respect that about him. I don’t really care for the music he now makes, but whatever.
Tad Doyle is the monster in front of Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, where you can get real, real doomy to this day.
Mudhoney got college degrees, I assume. Melvins is always out there playing around with the idea of Melvins. Mark Lanegan keeps popping up to delight us, and then wanders away again. Alice in Chains carries on.
Grunge hasn’t left us. In some ways it became even metaller with time. And in others, less. It was never about any of that to begin with. It was about the engine. The part of the hot rod you rarely see, but the only part that matters. You can paint the car anything—add spoilers and fins and scoops, chop it, lift it, put it on hydraulics, low ride it, drift it… but the engine is where the thing lives or dies. Nirvana, Tad, and Soundgarden had different engines, but all of them shared the ability to create serious torque. They raced without bonnets, motors exposed, and tended to leave the panels primer. But they could pull like freight trains. Big, ugly, metal freight trains. And that was all that mattered.