Wednesday, July 06, 2011
Big Pants: a progressive-grunge sampler
[NOTE: I've augmented some of the entries and tacked on five additional selections at the end.]
I've had the early-to-mid ’90s on the brain lately. This probably has something to do with (a) my Time Out NY preview of Soundgarden's two upcoming area shows (Friday and Saturday), and (b) my recent conversation with former Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs.
Both Soundgarden and Rollins Band fall into a subgenre that I would term progressive grunge. In employing this term, I'm zeroing on a specific sound that crystallized in the post-Nirvana era, one that spanned the under- and overgrounds. When I think progressive grunge, I think of metal crossed with alternative rock and pumped full of fusiony flash and funky swagger. Of tinny, super-crunchy riffage and proudly slappy bass. Of snares tightened up to a bell-like ping. Of guitars hoisted high and pressed tight to the chest. Of brash syncopated accents. Of stylized brooding, illustrated via strobe lights. Of the dead serious mingling with a certain zaniness. Of post–Perry Farrell dreadlocks, and rapping that no self-respecting rap fan would tolerate. All of this adds up to something my friends and I like to call BP, which stands for "big pants," i.e., the kind favored by skaters during the Lollapalooza era.
Yes, when I think of progressive grunge, I think of cheese, but I also think of a bold and thoughtful movement: unafraid of complexity, catchiness, bombast. This is rock music for the pit and for the airwaves, for the show at the VFW hall as well as for the 120 Minutes countdown. I'm fascinated by the way it can seem both fantastically dated and absolutely fresh. This sound still reverberates in bands like the Mars Volta, but really, it dead-ended sometime in the late ’90s. Still, there's a reason that so many of us who grew up in this era hold these bands so dear (Quicksand—pictured above—is one outfit mentioned below who sound as crucial to me today as they did when I first heard them in high school). Though many of us may have moved on to rawer, more extreme sounds (whether along the underground continuum to, say, the DC or Chicago aesthetics, back to the primeval sources like Sabbath and Zeppelin, or straight through to the Metallicas and the Cannibal Corpses), we crave the clarity of this music, its logic and nimbleness, its melodic jolt and body-moving thrust. We crave its accessibility and revel in its non-dumbed-down-ness. It's much cooler to say you were shaped by hardcore or proto-metal, but when I get right down to it, these are the sounds that helped shape my rock aesthetics.
There's not a lot out there now like this, so we have to look backward. (To be fair, bands like Protest the Hero, and even Mastodon from time to time, push some of these same buttons for me.) Progressive grunge is about the uncompromising post-hardcore spirit slamming up against MTV-ish budgets and production values—in many cases a very fruitful collision. Not to mention a distinctly ’90s one. (Living Colour's Vivid, from 1988, is one important precursor. NOTE: I've added a Colour track—see addendum at the bottom of this post.)
Some of these bands are (or were, at the time of these recordings) widely thought of as progressive-grunge bands (Soundgarden, for example, or Tool). Some are often characterized as weird hardcore bands (Iceburn, Into Another, Suicidal Tendencies). Some are just plain metal bands (Anacrusis). But there's a lot of Venn-diagram overlap among them. A quest for sleek, clever loudness, for bright, pure hooks. Ear-bending hit singles. Think of progressive grunge as the populist version of math rock, i.e., another sort of prog-rock outpost. The obstacle course married to the crowd-pleasing impulse.
Anyone else come of age during the progressive-grunge era? If so—or if you're simply an enthusiast of the period—I'd love to hear what your favorites are.
P.S. All credit to my bros/bandmates Tony and Joe, as well as to my friend Nick P., for helping to reawaken my ears to the possibilities of the BP movement.
P.P.S. In the spirit of how I originally consumed this music (MTV), I have included hit singles where appropriate.
P.P.P.S. Some of these tracks I obsessed over at the time (Rollins, Helmet, Quicksand) and some are more recent discoveries (Handsome, Into Another, Kings X), but I feel they are all of a piece somehow.
P.P.P.P.S. It occurs to me after the fact that Shudder to Think's Pony Express Record (1994) is a progressive-grunge landmark. The record stands historically apart from what's below—it's artier than most of my choices and probably more subtle on the whole—but really, it's not terribly different. If Shudder to Think's first few releases hadn't come out on Dischord, it would be fair to lump them in with, say, early Tool or even Soundgarden. [NOTE: I added a Shudder track. See the addendum at the bottom.]
P.P.P.P.P.S. Faith No More and Primus probably belong in this conversation as well. [NOTE: I added a Primus track. Again, see addendum.]
"Lost in Germany" (1992):
BP at its most joyful. Chops served up with irresistible strut and swagger.
Prog-core perfection. Jazz-rock fueling the mosh.
"Face Pollution" (1991):
Cornell & Co. at their looniest and most unhinged. A weirdo-punk gem that helps us remember that Soundgarden were once affiliated with SST. In your mind's ear, this band might sound generic, but they were completely off the wall. (NOTE: "Rusty Cage" and "Outshined" represent the prog-grunge ideal—catchy and head-spinning. Do not take it for granted how cool it was/is that these strange, strange songs were in some respect hit singles. "Spoonman" is much cheesier, but similarly bold and unusual.)
"Part of Me" (1992):
Prog comes screaming into early-’90s L.A. Dynamically, Tool still had a long way to go, but the basic ingredients were all there even at this early stage.
"Poison Fingers" (1994):
Righteously abrasive BP stylings. Too weird for Lollapalooza yet a beautiful exemplar of the progressive-grunge ethos.
Life of Agony
"Through and Through" (1993):
Emo-hardcore that goes way out on a limb in the service of the pit and the radio.
Bow down before the prog-grunge masters. Hip-hoppy machismo and pile-driving power.
"Irish Jig"/"Fall" (1992):
More off-the-wall abrasion, but still a prime prog-grunge specimen. Hooks within the hecticness.
Rage Against the Machine
"Down Rodeo" (1996):
The Cadillac of BP groovecore.
Voivod got grungier and poppier than you think around this time, retaining that offbeat edge. Deadly hooks.
"No Groovy" (1993):
Hometown favorites of mine from the Kansas City vicinity. A deep BP skank. By the way, starting a track out in lo-fi and having it kick in at full power after a little while is a progressive-grunge trademark.
"Come Original" (1999):
Say what you want about these guys, but they snuck badass fusion impulses onto alt-rock radio. The last gasp of BP before nu metal took over?
"Greying Out" (1992):
A glorious WTF, toggling between notey, King's X–y alt-prog and borderline Toad the Wet Sprocket territory. True ’90s art rock.
"Low Self Opinion" (1992):
MTV-ized hardcore, pumped up with prog know-how.
"Accept My Sacrifice" (1992):
Brilliant outsider funk. No other band sounds like this. "Institutionalized" is cool and all, but The Art of Rebellion is an overlooked classic.
Mind Over Four
"Half Way Down"/"Charged" (1993):
More L.A. prog-core. Very early-Tool-ish, pissed off and smarter than you.
The hardcore heroes, very handsomely MTV-ized.
"Sound the Alarm" (1993):
Often labeled thrash, but this sounds more like prog-grunge to me. Big emphasis on the hooks and the architecture.
"Milktoast" [a.k.a. "Milquetoast"] (1994):
What can you say about these BP heroes? Body-moving riff fest.
Not quite top-notch, but a respectable entry from this Helmet/Quicksand/Iceburn spin-off.
[Added Sunday, 7/10/11]
More BP: Five additional progressive-grunge touchstones
Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Suck My Kiss" (1991):
I really shouldn't have omitted this song from the list above. In the early ’90s, the Chili Peppers proved that the only thing more BP than wearing big pants was wearing no pants. "Suck My Kiss" is the final word in lean, mean party metal, and an honest engagement with the P-Funk universe.
"Too Many Puppies" (1990):
Another zany BP classic. There's something about Primus that is deeply grating (okay, a lot of things), but in the end, there's no sense denying the nerd-mosh thrust on display here. Primus offered a back-door entry into the metal world for those who couldn't deal with all the doom and gloom, and for that, they deserve props. It's interesting too, since both Les Claypool and guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde came up playing metal (Claypool famously auditioned for Metallica and LaLonde played in Possession). Revisiting Primus reminds me that I need to reengage with the maniacal free-fusion leads that Ler splattered all over most of the band's catalog.
"Passive Restraints" (1992):
Most know Clutch as affable stoner-metal road dogs, but they were a much more aggro band in the early days. This is a primo BP jam: more post-hardcore (or even just hardcore) than progressive grunge, but it's got that eccentricity to it (the lyrics are key) that makes you think "alt" and Lollapalooza and all that. About as macho as BP got, but still BP.
Shudder to Think
"Gang of $" (1994):
I've often gushed about Shudder to Think's major-label debut, Pony Express Record, on this blog. Please hear it in full if you haven't. Basically Shudder were the Queen of BP: pure pomp and art-rock over-the-top-ness mixed with that polished progginess that is the hallmark of great BP music. Shudder to Think will probably always be remembered more for their indie roots (Dischord) than for their 120 Minutes–ness, but to me, their best material fits in perfectly with the fruitfully commercialized alt-rock movement of the early ’90s. The combination of artiness and big-budget slickness on display here is truly head-spinning.
"Leave It Alone" (1993):
Not as essential as 1988's "Cult of Personality," which is pretty much the blueprint for and the pinnacle of the BP sound, "Leave It Alone" is still a pretty badass slice of progressive grunge. Gotta love that nasty fuzz-funk riff.