Grunge: Noun, slang – Dirt; Filth; Rubbish; Something of Inferior Quality; Trash
If the 90s definitely marked the collapse of stylistic barriers and historical fences between styles, heavy metal is probably the genre that more than others bears the signs of this change: the grunge phenomenon is only the first sign of the impending revolution. . The origins of Seattle’s movement date back to the mid-1980s, to be precise in 1985, the year of the Green River debut record – “Come On Down ”. Green River, which includes future members of Pearl Jam and Mudhoney will spread the seeds in the rich city scene.
On one hand, there are two Iron Maiden fans like bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard (future Pearl Jam), on the other a vocalist like Mark Arm (future Mudhoney) who does his utmost to revive the spirit of Iggy Pop; the result is a strange hybrid between hard rock and garage punk, a still unripe fusion that prefigures the real distinctive element and the common denominator of the grunge scene: an illicit and unprecedented fusion of punk and metal that opens the way to an infinite series of hybrids during the following decade. The unorthodox union between the two genres reappears a couple of years later with “Gluey Porch Treatments” by the Melvins, an anomalous phenomenon of a post-punk group dedicated to recreating the gloomy and threatening atmospheres of the Black Sabbath.
Sleepless in Seattle
When the “Sub Pop 200” collection came out in 1988, the ranks of the Seattle movement were already practically complete: Mudhoney, Nirvana, Screaming Trees, and Soundgarden are all present in the call to bring prestige to a city scene that has never been so exciting. However, a quick listening is enough to realize how radically different the sounds of these groups are. Soundgarden, debuting the same year with “Ultramega OK”, proves to be the ideal bridge between the world of metal and that of hardcore: their sound takes up the dark Sabbathian riffs and the singing of Chris Cornell makes you think of Robert Plant, but the structure of the pieces is dry, essential, and interveined by a strong psychedelic stream found in the group’s subsequent albums, from “Louder Than Love” (1990) to “Superunknown” (1994), the group’s masterpiece.
A vein that flows even stronger through the grooves of the records of Mark Lanegan’s Screaming Trees in 1988 on the third disc with “Invisible Lantern” (released by SST): their sound is a version, only slightly hardened, of the more psychedelic garage- rock from the 1960s; However, the group’s artistic path is not destined to stop there and when, in 1991, they made their debut for Epic, the sound has already undergone a strong turn towards roots and folk, a turning point that will be deepened by Lanegan along with a formidable solo career that began in the mid-90s after the dissolution of the group.
A completely different type of garage is what circulates in the records of Mudhoney, deans of the Seattle scene for which the term grunge was forged and the first real success of the seminal Sub Pop: the discreet debut of the same name in 1989 is followed by the excellent “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” (1991), a crazy mix of genres and styles that never strays too far from the central coordinates of the group’s sound, a metal reinterpretation of the garage punk of the Stooges and Mc5.
Nirvana Enters the Scene
But the most formidable synthesis of styles and sounds comes with Nirvana: since “Bleach” (1989) but even more so in Nevermind (1991) the group of Kurt Cobain gives life to a sound that blends Black Sabbath (via Melvins), the hardest power pop (Cheap Trick style), the alternative of hardcore origins of groups like Meat Puppets and Husker Du and the noise-rock of the Pixies.
Succeeding in the extraordinary feat of playing pop: an abrasive, violent pop, but still captivating enough to increase the cult of the group in a huge way in the space of two years, making “Nevermind” an epochal turning point for alternative music: grunge becomes billionaire commercial phenomenon, the then unrecognized groups mentioned by Cobain are rediscovered and studied (from Sonic Youth to Melvins, from Raincoats to Meat Puppets) consecrating and definitely bringing out that indie musical universe that slowly formed during the 80s: it is the birth of 90s alternative rock.
“Nevermind” is released under Geffen and marks the commercial explosion of the genre: a first hint there was already a year before, when A&M signed Soundgarden, while the Screaming Trees sign for Epic. The commercial boom is only the tip of the (commercial) iceberg of a (musical) phenomenon that, as we have seen, has its roots in the late 1980s: however, when the Seattle groups found themselves, almost by chance, to dominate the American charts the “blasphemous” encounter between punk and metal is automatically legitimized and traditional (and traditionalist) metal is faced with a fait accompli, witnessing the decline of decades of ideological and stylistic fences.
Alice in Chains’ “Dirt”(1992) is very close musically to the traditional metal universe , with a musical mixture that always runs from the parts of Sabbath and Stooges but in which the metal component tends to prevail, both in the singing and in the gothic atmospheres that permeate the disc.
The only band that can rival Nirvana’s popularity is however Pearl Jam: the band, born from the ashes of Green River and Mother Love Bone. Since their 1991 debut “Ten” creates a sound that reconciles grunge with the more traditional rock, especially that of Neil Young, smoothing out the punk harshness of Nirvana and the metal ones of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and making grunge universal; it is therefore not surprising that Vs. (1993), the group’s second album, sells a million copies in a single week, marking the commercial apex of a genre that is at the same time nearing its end. A year later, a series of events, from Cobain’s death to the appearance of his followers like Bush, light years away from the Seattle underground universe where grunge had sprouted, suggests the end of an era.
The Beginning of the End
If the Seattle tidal wave is destined to shatter into a thousand pieces, the effects of its passage begin to be felt immediately: not only for the infinite clones of Cobain and company that begin to invade the MTV frequencies and inhabit them assiduously. more or less constant for most of the 90s, (from Bush to Silverchair, from Creed to Days Of The New), but also for the shock that that cyclone gave not only to metal but rather to alternative music in general.
If grunge is the most important mass phenomenon of the early 90s, other small crazy splinters begin to get stuck, revealing themselves to be pieces of a musical mosaic that in a few years will be defined crossover, a term passe-partout to indicate the infinite mergers and hybridizations which heavy metal underwent during the 90s. There’s the psychedelic and contaminated metal of Jane’s Addiction of “Ritual De Lo Habitual” (1990) and Tool’s “Undertow” (1993) and the masterpiece Aenima (1996); there is rap-metal in “The Real Thing” by Mike Patton’s Faith No More, one of the first records to mix metal and rap, since 1991’s “Bring The Noise”, a song born between Anthrax and Public Enemy (an ideal sequel to the experiment of five years before that had Aerosmith and Run DMC as protagonists), above all, in 1989, the world witnesses the triumphal commercial rise of the Red Hot Chili Peppers with Mother’s Milk.
The rap component in the band’s music is however less relevant than the funk element, the true protagonist of a musical crossover that has its roots in the eponymous debut in 1984, released under the aegis of George Clinton himself, a continuation of a story that had begun with p-funk bands in the early 80s.
The popularity of Grunge and the money that had poured in as a result of its incredible success slowly started eating it. A lot of imitators were popping all over, and bands like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots were battling horrid drug problems.
In my opinion, what really delivered the toughest blows to an already saturated and, a scene that proved unable to carry the load of popularity and importance it was handled were, first, the suicide of Kurt Cobain, the poster face of grunge in April of 1994, and the death by heroin overdose of Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff in July of the same year. The 2 tragic deaths showed how fragile the movement was. It was clear that even the biggest names on the scene thought there was nowhere to go after the peak it had reached. The idols of millions had reached the top of the mountain, and they hated it there, and the true value of Grunge was under a question mark.
Post-grunge bands and Nu Metal were starting to take over, and although the biggest names would continue to create memorable records, they would never go anywhere near the pentacle of the early nineties. When you look at the Grunge Big 4, and their frontmen; Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, only Eddie Vedder is still alive. The incredible vocalists that have left such an unerasable mark pop culture of the world, had lost the battles against their own demons. Kurt and Chris Cornell took their own lives, and Layne Staley died of a drug overdose, leaving us to reflect on the true nature of the art that they created. Was it all just an expression of pain and suffering? Were they only asking for help in their own way? Hasn’t the world failed to give a helping hand to these men in turmoil? Would they still be with us if someone had looked at them as humans instead of rock stars, and money-making machines?