Soundgarden – Black Hole Sun (1994)

This was the first video I remember seeing on TV. Well, it’s either this or R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“. It might also be Elton John’s “Sacrifice“. Either way, this was definitely the first one which terrified me to such an extent that I still feel a dull sort of fear when I watch it. Still, I loved the song from the very start, and I still do, quite a lot. And now, the video makes much more sense. Enjoy!

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Hole – Live Through This (1994)

Finally gathered the nerve to write about what is probably the most ironically named album in the history of rock. Dark irony indeed, when the release of it came four days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It was an odd April, that of 1994, truly a cruel month, and the sound of this album mirrors that atmosphere very well, or rather the slice of time that led up to it. It’s an uncannily heavy album, heavy as the sky, heavy as only a heart can be.

Source: bibberly.tumblr.com

I bought Hole’s Live Through This in France. My mother and I were visiting some family friends, some of our dearest people in the world, and I had a mattress in their garret, right under a French window. When not roaming the small town of Saintes, visiting Roman ruins and whatnot, I would listen to this CD, completely transfixed. I had heard of Hole, I had read a lot about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and all of that (I was about 15 at the time, it was the perfect time), and Hole had seemed, at that time, as the only missing piece of the puzzle, that band in the whole grunge mess I hadn’t listened to yet. I remember playing it for the first time – the whole house froze. My mom said “Courtney rocks!”, I nodded approvingly, eyes far away, took it out of the sound system and retreated to the garret – a space so tiny I couldn’t stand up straight in it, which was just fine by me – and proceeded to listen to the album all night.

Live through this is a furious, helpless, hollow, wonderful album, an album of cold, rusty, jagged sincerity, fierce and powerless, naked and bruised, raw, gunning emotion at you faster than the speed of sound. It’s a detailed painting of a mess so complete it’s suffocating. The reverb on Courtney Love’s voice, combined with her “close enough, fuck you” vocal style say all there needs to be said about the feeling of isolation and somehow detached rage, cold fury, happy-clappy desperation fueling these songs. I’m not going to talk about the political message of the album – I don’t know enough about that. It’s obviously a powerfully feminist album, and I completely respect that, and I believe it’s probably one of the best. But this music doesn’t stop there – like a drunken, barefoot, dirty character, it crashes and burns and smashes everything, in every room of the listener’s mind, savage and desperate, dramatic and delirious and beautiful – it’s the scream and tear of the nineties and I think it can speak to everyone just as well, female or male.

I’ve been listening to this album for ten years now, it’s almost twenty years old, and still it doesn’t feel dated in the least. I don’t know if that’s me never really growing up (I’m reminded of the joke about the boy telling his mom “When I grow up I want to be a musician” and her answer: “Well take your pick, you can’t have both”), but I think not – there’s really much depth to this record. From the lyrics to the melodic layering, the balance between grunge abrasiveness and radio-friendly rhythm and tempo, Live Through This displays remarkable and probably paradoxical control and maturity, right under all the fury. Give it a shot, it’s really quite a tremendous record. I even found the whole thing on YouTube – that’s the third video. Enjoy and see you soon!

Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992) & 100th Post!

I find it hard to believe I’ve reached 100 posts. I don’t think I’ve ever held on to an enterprise for so long and up to such a satisfying, round, psychologically wholesome number. I’ve thought a lot about how I could possibly celebrate this date, and I couldn’t really come up with anything flashy or really festive. My favorite thing to do, at all times, is to just listen to and play music, and write about it. It’s a limited skill set, I know, but it’s managed to keep me happy through this seemingly endless winter over here, and through all the seemingly endless winters I’ve been lucky enough to have to go through. So I guess that’s what I’ll do, today, as I try on most days – listen to this great album, and try to put a bit of the experience into words.

Sonic Youth feels like one of those bands which demands a serious baggage of information in order to be approachable by a would-be critic. The same vibe applies to the uninitiated listener as well, although, in my opinion, I think it’s a myth that works mostly against the band’s musical way of expression. For some reason, I get the feeling Sonic Youth is considered one of those proto-hipster bands which only true razor-thin musical tastes can hold any claim of understanding as a whole. Luckily, I’m not going to attempt a history of the band, since it’s been around a very long time now, experimenting and playing with a myriad of styles and genre bending their way across the decades. I’ll just try to write about Dirty, their 1992 album, the first of their discography I ever listened to, and the one which I still enjoy the most.

Sonic Youth are known as sort-of tonal mad scientists, a rock band on the fringe of dissolution into noise, an outfit prone to sudden bouts of amplifier feedback ritual and worship. Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten fame would praise their unique and heretic approach to their own music and their musical instruments (tens of busted up and experimented upon guitars kept in cardboard boxes all over the stage, like so many broken furniture parts) as he was deciding to leave Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds on account of Nick’s heroine fever-dream music being just a little bit too mainstream back in the early nineties. Kurt Cobain used to idolize them and covered one of their songs with Nirvana. That’s how much of an impression Sonic Youth leave, while somehow managing to stay in the shadows of the industry, thoroughly askew in their abrasive sound armor plating, merely flirting with pop sensibility on some albums and completely smashing it against the wall in others.

Dirty is one of those albums which are more accessible, more radio friendly, if you will, although I think that’s saying a bit much. Sonic Youth sounds on this album like that band you’ve always wanted to make when you were an adolescent in the mid nineties, but never had the balls to pull off, not really being sure if you wanted to rock for the statement or for the chicks. I’ve never heard a band manage to pull off making noises with guitars in such a way as to make it seem very complicated and artful. This music sounds to me like some form of heavy, toxic, extremely pure grunge concentrate, a sort of fanged punk mutation with less jumping around and more gritting of teeth, sensual in its approach of noise and relentless in its construction of sexy, simple, furious songs which pound themselves into your head and stay there for good. I haven’t listened to Dirty in over five years, and yet when I played it for myself yesterday it felt like not a day had passed, I could recognize the sound instantly, and it was scintillating.

The grunge reference comes up mostly because of the fact that Kim Gordon’s singing style reminds me so much of Courtney Love’s, and Hole is one of my favorite bands of the nineties, but that’s not to say Dirty is a grunge album – the vibe is very different, although I find it hard to explain. I guess it has to do with the background – Sonic Youth come from New York and draw a lot of strength from The Velvet Underground’s pioneering work, which is all very nice, but doesn’t overlap with grunge’s direct lineage. There’s a much more detached, “meta” feeling about this music, even though it’s every bit as massive and powerful as any of the Seattle scene’s outfits of the age.

In any case, enough musical history nitpicking. Do yourselves a favor and play this album loud, or with a good pair of headphones. It wants to scrape at your ears, and it’ll be a very pleasurable kind of pain if you’re anything like me. Thank you very much for sticking with me for 100 posts! I’ll see you soon!

Mad Season – Above (1995)

Rock history has its hefty share of sad stories about great musicians struggling with addiction and losing the struggle. Jimi Hendrix, John Bonham, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, the list goes on an on, a litany of misery and pain which people often have trouble relating to, considering the fact that the people going through these ides and not making it through do enjoy huge popularity, fame, fortune and so on, and still end up burning themselves away like that. Mad Season is a band which seems to me inextricably linked to this struggle for balance, and the way it’s sometimes simply unattainable.

Source: vkontakte.dj

Mad Season was a sort-of grunge supergroup formed in the mid-nineties, out of members of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and The Screaming Trees – almost all of them musicians who had struggled with drug addiction and had went through rehab. The band was a form of celebrating sobriety, and a form of maintaining it, via constant reciprocal support. The only one in the band who wasn’t sober was Layne Staley, the singer from Alice in Chains, who got drafted into its ranks in an attempt to get him off drugs. In this sense, Mad Season was the biggest, most remarkable intervention I’ve ever heard of. I won’t dwell on the fact that it didn’t really work, I’d like to think that’s nothing more than a sad afterthought to the wonderful spark this band kindled. Mad Season isn’t a grunge staple, they aren’t a band which would get recommended a lot, not a high-profile, triple A affair. What they are, is honest, balanced and moving. Their music is a very satisfying blend of grunge’s more abrasive side with a sort-of acoustic sensibility, a slow, deliberate tempo maintained throughout the record. It’s also influenced by a wider range of genres than grunge as a whole admitted to, which keeps the album fresh, satisfyingly eclectic and meaty.

Truth be told, you won’t hear anything truly surprising on Above. The slow tracks remind me of Alice in Chains’ acoustic releases, the harsher parts sound a lot like Pearl Jam and there’s even a definite nod towards Nirvana’s style (particularly heavy drumming, remarkably simple and memorable guitar riffs) on I Don’t Know Anything. However, this album seems to me like a true x-ray of a whole generation’s musical mode of though, a wonderful panorama of grunge in all its iterations, lifted well above mediocrity by Layne Saley’s unique voice, shifting from whisper to rending scream instantly and with impeccable timing. It’s what I’d call a “cozy” album – a low expectations-high results sort of thing (the whole material was put together in about three weeks, it’s about as close as grunge has come to a jam band), not as seminal as Nirvana’s Nevermind, not as ferocious as Alice in Chains’ Dirt and not as popular as Pearl Jam’s Ten, but rather smack in the middle, balanced, self-sufficient through self-awareness.

Above is the only album Mad Season ever released – the band went on what was basically a semi-permanent hiatus after that, due to the members’ conflicting schedules. Eventually, the whole thing fell apart with the death of the bassist, followed three years later by Layne Staley’s own demise at the hands of substance abuse. This year marks a decade since he passed away, and I can’t really explain why I’ve been dwelling so much on his work as of late, I guess it’s just one of those synchronicity oddities. Mad Season seems to me like a wonderful way of remembering him – a relaxed, simply creative band who didn’t waste any time worrying about labels, fluff and pomp, and was trying its best to drag him away from his demons. There’s no happy end, bu there’s a shimmering, vibrant middle to the story, and Mad Season is the soundtrack.

I hope you enjoy this music, even though I’ve set a rather depressing tone, for which I apologize. I promise I’ll try to talk about some sunnier music next time. See you soon!

Melvins – Stag (1996)

This coughing sickness kicked my ass somethin’ fierce. I apologize for not posting anything for so long. I actually went home for some recovery time and reading and the chance to listen to my records again. Didn’t help much with the sickness, but it recharged my batteries. Serendipitously, I managed to catch up to my “listening list” – bands I know I should have listened to already but neglected to, for whatever reason. From this perspective, it was a very productive, although spastic week, especially since I managed to tune in and immerse myself in Melvins’ brilliance. Given that my last post was about Alice in Chains, my favorite grunge band, I figured I should write about Melvins, one of the bands cited as a major influence by most of the players in the Seattle grunge scene of the early nineties.

Source: alarmpress.com

True to my affinity for bands which are hard to classify, I fell for Melvins almost instantly. It took me a few months, true, but I’d say that’s relatively expedient given their immensely wide exploratory range and influence. They’re responsible not only for shaping the grunge sensibility, but also sludge metal, and influencing bands like Tool, Boris and Isis, which are gender-benders in their own right. Truly impressive is the consistency with which King Buzzo (voice and guitars) and Dale Crover (drums) shape their music into the staggering display of experimentation and sheer mass they weave, all while changing bass players so often it’s probably the hardest thing to keep track of concerning the band’s output.

Throughout their career, Melvins have changed styles as often as Sonic Youth (which is to say pretty damn often), switching from punk to slow, hard and heavy punk, to stoner, drone, sludge and experimental metal within a decade. Their agility is remarkable not only from one album to the next, but within the confines of a single record, which is why I’m eventually going to start writing about Stag, at some point during this post, since it’s one of the albums which I think illustrates this multifaceted approach most eloquently.

This record feels to me like a very well constructed utterance, like an impeccable speech, covering a number of bullet points with accuracy and patience, in a remarkably articulate fashion. It starts on a strong note, an engaging statement (one of the most bad ass stoner-rock tracks I’ve ever heard), moves swiftly to a joke, to endear audiences, follows with some meaty, satisfying exposition, then another joke… you get the point. Every song on the album seems like it covers another point about their musical interests and forms of expression, and the record as a whole is punctuated with little tracks which do wonders to keep a certain mood, alternatively ominous and funny, and to give unexpected coherence to an otherwise overwhelmingly eclectic collection of songs. The band moves from repetitive, pounding rhythms which remind me of Queens of the Stone Age’s “robot rock”, to whimsical meta-metal in the style of Primus, to something which sounds like Metallica n their early nineties, to murky ambient industrial desert musical nightmares, drowned in echo and terrifying drones, only to bat their lashes and move on, over and over and over, in a tantalizing and completely genuine parade of musical languages, spoken perfectly. My amazement and admiration is doubled here, because of the fact that Melvins were probably the first band to delve into these territories in the first place, and it’s rare for pioneers to show such mastery of the trails they blaze.

In any case, the overall mood of the album seems fit for a bipolar night out, from party to panic, from amusement to anxiety, from jocularity to jugular threat. If you’re feeling especially exploratory, give the Melvins a proper chance, they’re definitely on par with great names like Frank Zappa and Primus, although I feel like they outclass almost any one of their peers I can think of, save perhaps for Sonic Youth. Enjoy, and I’ll see you soon!