The History of Rock Music: 1989-1994

Raves, grunge, post-rock
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(Copyright c 2002 Piero Scaruffi)


(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

The golden age of Seattle

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Grunge was one of the big phenomena of the 1990s, although it was largely confined to the United States. Grunge was essentially a revival of 1970s' hard-rock. However, it was also identified with the musical renaissance of Seattle, that suddenly became one of the world's centers for rock music, and "grunge" came to include just about any band that played in that city.

The road had been opened in the late 1980s by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Melvins and Mudhoney, with four distinctive styles that involved "hard" vibrations. Those were the four cardinal points of Seattle's grunge. Nirvana had turned grunge into a slot machine.

Alice In Chains (1) perfected a form of gloomy pop-metal and of power-ballad with Facelift (dec 1989/apr 1990 - aug 1990) and especially the stark melodrama of Dirt (apr/jul 1992 - sep 1992), the intimate portrait of a drug addict. Layne Staley's psychotic vocals and Jerry Cantrell's sharp riffs transformed their confessions into bloodsheds.

Followers of their bittersweet hard-rock included My Sister's Machine, with Diva (? 1991 - jan 1992), Truly, with Fast Stories. From Kid Coma (?1992/? 1994 - jun 1995), and the most successful band of the second generation, the Foo Fighters, formed by Nirvana's drummer David Grohl, Germs' guitarist Pat Smear and Sunny Day Real Estate's rhythm section, with the even poppier Foo Fighters (oct 1994 - jul 1995), which was truly a Grohl solo album.

A multitude of derivative bands appeared after Nirvana's 1991 success: Love Battery, with the EP Between The Eyes (spr 1989/early 1990 - ? 1990); Green Apple Quickstep, with Wonderful Virus (? ? - sep 1993); Sweet Water, with their second album Superfriends (jan/feb 1995 - jul 1995); Candlebox; etc.

Nearby Oregon had Sprinkler and Pond, but mainly Everclear.

Few bands truly experimented with the format. Hammerbox (1) were possibly the most imaginative: their fusion of punk, country, blues, funk and metal elements on Numb (? ? - mar 1993) was unrivaled.

GodHeadSilo (2), the duo of bassist Mike Kunka and drummer Dan Haugh, played nightmares not sounds. The gargantuan pieces of Scientific Supercake (feb 1994 - apr 1994) were catalogs of terrifying sounds borrowed from Chrome, Unsane and Melvins. Skyward In Triumph (dec 1995 - apr 1996) did not sound human at all, submerged by an irrational noise of galactic riffs, demonic screams and crushing cadences.

An even more claustrophobic atmosphere was penned by Hammerhead (1) with the ugly, post-hardcore sludge of Ethereal Killer (aug/oct 1992- jan 1993).

Atomic 61 (1) wed the Melvins' apocalyptic sensibility to Jimi Hendrix's blues-rock on Tinnitus In Extremis (jan 1993 - mar 1994).

Portland's Everclear (1), the project of Art Alexakis, a sincere populist, bard of the misfits, expressed teenage angst via a mythological review of provincial life on Sparkle And Fade (sep 1994 - may 1995) and especially So Much For The Afterglow (nov 1996/mar 1997 - sep 1997)
Songs From An American Movie (? 2000 - jul and nov 1997), the latter embellished with layers of keyboards, horns, strings and choirs. His mission peaked (morally, if not artistically) with the solemn and touching concept album Songs From An American Movie (? 2000 - jul and nov 2000), whose lush arrangements were almost symphonic.

Grunge in California

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Southern California, long the main center for heavy-metal, jumped on the bandwagon with Scott Weiland's Stone Temple Pilots (1), who virtually cloned Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, especially on second album Purple (may 1993/mar 1994 - may 1994), and Blind Melon, two of the most successful grunge bands of the 1990s, but also two of the most derivative. More original were perhaps Failure on Magnified (? 1993 - mar 1994).

Tool (3) was the most innovative band to emerge from grunge's second generation. Undertow (oct/dec 1992 - apr 1993) announced their sinister, threatening and (in a subtle way) explosive blend of Led Zeppelin, grunge, heavy-metal and progressive-rock. The lengthy and brainy suites of Aenima (sep 1995/mar 1996 - sep 1996) displayed a shimmering elegance that was almost a contradiction in terms, but that was precisely the point: Tool's art was one of subtle contrasts and subdued antinomies, one in which existential rage and titanic will competed all the time. It was also a diary of primal angst, and the lyrical level truly paralleled the instrumental level. Lateralus (oct 2000/jan 2001 - may 2001) expanded on that two-level approach, with tracks that, musically, were multi-part concertos or mini-operas, and, lyrically, were Freudian sessions that elicited all possible interior demons. In parallel, Tool's vocalist Maynard James Keenan was adapting grunge to the claustrophobic and neurotic atmospheres of industrial music and post-rock on Mer De Noms (fall 1999/? 2000 - may 2000), the debut album by his supergroup A Perfect Circle.

An even more original assimilation of progressive-rock's language was carried out by a San Diego band that relocated to England, God Machine (1), on Scenes From The Second Storey (? 1992 - feb 1993).

Grunge in New York

Helmet (1), formed by Band Of Susans' guitarist Page Hamilton, were the undisputed leaders of New York's grunge. Strap It On (? 1989 - mar 1990) defined their sound: stormy, dense and dark; a dull, continuous, torrential noise that created a manic tension.

Quicksand, formed by Gorilla Biscuits' guitarist Walter Schreifels, fused hardcore and grunge in a more straightforward manner on Manic Compression (? 1994 - feb 1995).

Surgery (1) were to Helmet what the Rolling Stones were to the Kinks. The supercharged blues-rock frenzy of Nationwide (? ? - oct 1990) and the savage and incendiary sound of EP Trim 9th Ward High Roller (nov 1992 - jun 1993) had no class and no artistic pretenses: they simply displayed animal instincts.

Barkmarket (11) coined a form of "progressive grunge", an explosive mixture of Jesus Lizard and Sonic Youth that relied on David Sardy's uncontrolled histrionics (reminiscent of Mick Jagger at his worst) and guitar bacchanals a` la Surgery to craft the chaotic, incendiary atmospheres of Vegas Throat (dec 1990/feb 1991 - ? 1991). And Gimmick (? ? - oct 1993) added sound effects and samples to an already frantic cacophony.

Austria's H.P. Zinker (relocated to New York) offered a jazzy version of grunge on Beyond It All (jun 1990 - ? 1990).

Scarce (1), formed in Rhode Island by guitarist/vocalist Chick Graning on the ashes of Anastasia Screamed, penned the memorable Deadsexy (may 1993 - jul 1995), one of the most melodic and melodramatic grunge albums of the era.

Grunge in Chicago

Chicago had actually co-pioneered the genre with Urge Overkill, particularly on their second album, Americruiser (? ? - may 1990), a compromise between their experimental debut and the melodic style that would make them famous. Bands such as Hum and Soil kept it alive.

Out of Chicago also came the only hard-rocking band that could compete with the popularity of Seattle's grunge: the Smashing Pumpkins (2). Gish (dec 1990/mar 1991 - may 1991) crossed the boundaries of grunge, progressive-rock and acid-rock, unifying the power of riffs and the subtlety of dynamics. Siamese Dream (dec 1992/mar 1993- jul 1993) gave the idea psychological depth and dramatic emphasis: languid melodies were delivered in a neurotic register by Billy Corgan while James Iha's guitar screeched a wall of noise. They were more "recitations" than songs, and the band's achievement was to strike a balance between elegance and savagery. The monumental Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (mar/aug 1995 - oct 1995) sounded like a series of uncontrolled urges to experiment with all sorts of formats (symphonic, acoustic, bubblegum, glam, easy-listening and avantgarde). The common denominator of these schizophrenic fits was the atmosphere, a disorienting blend of fairy tale and Freudian confession.

Soon in the Midwest a few crossover experiments tried to expand the horizons of the genre. Detroit's Big Chief fused grunge with funk, blues, hip-hop and soul on Face (jul 1991 - may 1992); and Minneapolis' Walt Mink added jazz and psychedelia on Miss Happiness (mar 1992 - jun 1992).

In the south, grunge merged with the local tradition of "southern boogie" and with the countless flavors of blues, soul and gospel: Alabama's Verbena, with Souls For Sale (? 1996 - apr 1997); Georgia's Collective Soul, with Hints Allegations And Things Left Unsaid (? 1992/? 1993 - mar 1994); Texas' Toadies, with Rubberneck (? 1993/? 1994 - aug 1994); etc.

British Grunge

England's contingent was not as numerous and not as significant. Bush were the most successful thanks to Sixteen Stone (jan 1994 - dec 1994); and Fudge Tunnel were the most devastating with Hate Songs In E Minor (? 1990/? 1991 - aug 1991). On the other hand, the Manic Street Preachers merely watered down Guns N'Roses' street rock on Generation Terrorists (aug/dec 1991 - feb 1992).

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