All Access Review: B+
Seeing it as the province of dumb jocks and sex-crazed hair-band charlatans, one-time Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur steadfastly resists the notion that Grunge, in its original form at least, had much, if anything, in common with heavy metal. Fastbacks bassist/lead vocalist Kim Warnick, while admitting to some nebulous connection between the two genres, insists that Grunge artists never thought of themselves as having a single cloven hoof in the metal world. And when the conversation turns to what musical black arts influenced Soundgarden, Kim Thayil still bristles at the suggestion that he and the rest of the band based their recipe of sonic sludge around equal parts Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. This even though Chris Cornell, bare-chested and sweating machismo from every pore in old live footage, bellows like Robert Plant and Thayil’s own guitar riffs seem stained with the same industrial soot and smoke that smudged those conjured by Tony Iommi at the dawn of Black Sabbath.
The relationship between Metal and Grunge is, indeed, a thorny one, as the amiable and insatiably curious Sam Dunn discovers in the latest installment of his acclaimed “Metal Evolution” series, “Grunge,” which aired on Saturday on VH-1 Classic. At the mere suggestion that they were, in fact, cozy with one another, Grunge’s OGs are likely to squirm in their seats and turn defensive. Then again, in talking to Dunn, Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover of The Melvins freely admit a love of metal, and Tad’s Kurt Danielson owns up to fawning over Iron Maiden and the first Van Halen record, while, at the same time, being blown away by the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks – anything to tweak the parents. As for Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, he’s not at all ashamed to confess to borrowing a few tricks from proto-metal monsters Blue Cheer and Motorhead, as well as Sabbath.
So, what to make of all this falderal? That there happen to be strong opposing opinions as to Grunge’s place in the growth and development of metal is hardly surprising – especially to Dunn. After all, getting everyone involved in the Grunge movement to agree on anything regarding heavy metal and the role it played in its formation is next to impossible. That’s par for the course, though. Grunge was never the most homogenous of genres, even if a lot of acts did share an affinity for angst-fueled emotions.
The great thing about Dunn is he doesn’t set out to prove an already established hypothesis. There is genuine sincerity in this probe, because he himself is not entirely sure that Grunge belongs in heavy metal’s family tree. What emerges from Dunn’s quest is a sense that Grunge artists don’t really see themselves as having much of an impact on metal because they don’t feel a part of that scene. That view isn’t shaped by Dunn through creative editing or his own prejudices; instead, it extends naturally and organically from the extensive interviews he does with journalists, writers, producers, and artists who observed and participated in the early ‘90s explosion that blasted Grunge out of Seattle’s underground and into the public consciousness of a nation.
It’s not just that Dunn is comprehensive in the range of interview subjects he corrals or the issues related to the episode’s topic he attempts to cover. Time being the harsh mistress it is, there’s always something that’s going to be brushed under the rug or left out entirely. For example, in “Thrash,” as a reader so passionately pointed out to me, no mention was made of Overkill or Metal Church, and Hanoi Rocks should have received way more attention for their groundbreaking sound and look in “Glam.” As for “Grunge,” it’s the women who get short shrift. L7, Hole (aside from the Auf der Maur comments) and The Gits – none of them get any play, and that’s a glaring omission. But, remember, Dunn’s aim is not to present a history of Grunge, although he does, in fact, do a fine job of weaving its tale with subtlety as almost a sort of sub-plot. Establishing the “who, what, where, when and how” is not so easy when, first and foremost, there are important questions to be settled.
And there are moments of dazzling insight, including writer Michael Azzerad (“Our Band Could Be Your Life” and “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana”) citing Black Flag’s 1984 Seattle tour stop in support of the LP My War as a turning point for Grunge, the line of demarcation where local bands weaned on metal found that punk could slow things down, become unremittingly heavy and take on an apocalyptic feel. There’s DJ and journalist Jeff Gilbert and Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman confirming that Grunge messiah Kurt Cobain did, indeed, incorporate not only the pop sensibilities of The Beatles and the punk nuclear fallout of bands like Flipper into his tortured oeuvre, but also welcomed in the massive riffage and controlled chaos of metal. Or, how about Steve Albini, the famed indie producer who guided Nirvana during the In Utero sessions, proclaiming that while heavy metal was often all about flamboyance and camp, it did breed virtuosos, while Grunge artists practiced a more “functional musicianship.” And at the same time, another of Grunge’s more ubiquitous producers, Jack Endino, provides a lot of the background information about Seattle’s music history – specifically, the energy and spark of rebellion found in the music of garage bands The Sonics and The Wailers – and links it to the wide scope of Grunge’s sonic achievements.
All of this and more is here, and once again, Dunn skillfully meshes the interview footage with rare live and video clips of bands like Tad, Mudhoney, Soundgarden (check the dark, brooding, and heavy performance of “Loud Love”) and Black Flag, among others, while comparing Pearl Jam’s more classic-rock leanings with the rest of the genre’s more punk-ish or metallic progenitors. And with the briefly told story of Alice In Chains, he is able to establish that connection between metal and Grunge, once and for all.
Toward the end of “Grunge,” Dunn tackles a sore subject with Grunge’s main innovators, like Arm, Endino and Osbourne, and that is the rise of “Grunge lite” acts like Creed and Nickelback. Fearlessly, Dunn asks point blank how people like Arm feel about Grunge creating this more “pedestrian,” as Osborne calls it, Grunge monster, and Arm expresses his misgivings, saying that if he had anything to do with it, “Just kill me.” Likewise, the men of Creed try to distance themselves from the real thing, boasting in fact that they are not Grunge at all and that they feel they’ve created something new. It’s a little hard to swallow when the singers of Creed and Days Of The New try so, so hard to sound like Eddie Vedder – doing their “yarling” form of singing, as Endino calls it. It’s an uncomfortably humorous segment, and an issue that needs to be addressed, though the popularity of Nickelback gets perhaps more time than it deserves, even if Alice In Chain’s Jerry Cantrell does give them his stamp of approval. It’s a minor drawback in what is another in-depth and compelling installment of a documentary series that is fast becoming must-see TV for anybody interested in aggressive, rebellious music – as heavy metal is.
- Peter Lindblad
Metal Evolution - Grunge
View the Full Episode - Right Here, Right Now
Episode Summary - Sam explores grunge, a.k.a. the Seattle Sound, from a decidedly fresher approach, inspiring two fundamental questions: "Why did grunge polarize the Metal community?" and "What are the true roots of grunge?" While grunge was enjoying its meteoric rise, replacing the MTV face of Metal that was glam with its own brand of telegenic, easy to digest "rebellion," diehards within the Metal community struggled to adjust. We'll explore how fans and musicians felt a profound sense of disillusionment with the ascent of grunge, alienated by its lyrical obsession with depression and endless self-examination, and suspicious of the flannel-wearing façade that was deemed antithetical to the ethos of Metal. At the same time, there were other metallers who felt a connection with grunge-legends like Geddy Lee and Sabbath's Bill Ward discuss their admiration for the Seattle Sound, and how they incorporated elements of grunge into their own music and in doing so, shed light on a profound irony that was at play. We'll also reveal why the leaders of grunge were publicly shunning their Metal roots, preferring to advance the dubious notion that their music was an offspring of the American punk movement. But, through plain-spoken dialogue with Sam Dunn, surviving purveyors of grunge like Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell and Thurston Moore, will, for the first time ever, "come out of the closet," and own up to the enormous debt-technically, viscerally and aesthetically-they owe to Metal giants like Led Zeppelin, Blue Öyster Cult and Black Sabbath. In Episode 6, the history of grunge will be rewritten.