Tuesday, May 9, 2017

letter from NYC - outlook for '93: grim

LETTER FROM NYC: outlook for '93: grim
Melody Maker, December 1992

by Simon Reynolds

     Since it's that time of year when everyone's looking to the
future, let me weigh in with my two cents worth: not predictions, so
much as patterns for '93 in American rock.  This much is obvious:
the major labels are still fixated on that delusory figment, "the
next Nirvana".  Having signed most of Nirvana's grunge peers, and
scraped the bottom of that barrel, they're currently harvesting the
next crop: bands whose development has been (mis)shaped
by the success of "Nevermind".

   So if you thought the first, "authentic" wave was dire enough,
gird thy lug-holes for the likes of Kyuss, Stone Temple Pilots, and
Wool.  These neo-grungers occupy a constricted triangle of terrain
whose points are Black Sabbath, Black Flag, and Helmet.  Their
vocalists all bellow in that godawful Soundgarden/Alice In Chains
pseudo-blues style, like Joe Cocker being crushed between two slabs
of conrete.  Kyuss' "Blues For The Red Sun" LP, for instance, is
a dismal slog of down-tuned guitars and sluggish tempos.  The video
for the single "Thong Song" is set in some kind of sallow-lit
dungeon, while the song itself oscillates between a stop-start,
crippled riff and ineffectual blasts of rage, like a prisoner in
solitary trying to escape by using his head as a battering ram.

     If Kyuss are singing the modern blues, as the LP title seems to
claim, this is the blues as sung by Ozzy Osbourne and filtered
through Henry Rollins.  Rollins' agonised throes of failed, flailing
masculinity, as first and best heard on Black Flag's "Damaged", were
a seminal influence on Nirvana.  And Rollins' recent song "Low Self
Esteem" captures the (dis)spirit of grunge perfectly.  Musclebound
but impotent, grunge is masculine, but never macho in a flamboyant
Jagger/Plant/Axl way.  Grunge isn't the new cock rock, it's the
castration blues.

    And so bands like Kyuss don't swagger, they strain: their
riffage sounds strenuous, like it's perpetually on the verge of
sprouting a hernia. In a recent issue of Details, Rollins writes
eloquently about his almost mystical attitude to working out. He
sees "The Iron" as his only true friend: submitting to its regime,
he learns to channel his aggression and confront his own limits.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Rollins is a survivalist, a One
Man Army, at war with himself.  If Rollins is parted from his
weights for any prolonged period, he sinks into a morass of
despondency, like a career soldier who's been demobilised against
his will.  With Rollins, Kyuss, et al, rock is a kind of spiritual
work-out, a fortification of the self in order to face the minefield
of everyday life.

    There's another strain of US rock activity, bands who don't
fight abjection but succumb to it: Come, Swell, Codeine, Toiling
Midgets, and other inhabitants of the abyss.  Where the turgid toil
of Rollins-rock is eventually numbing, this music is plain numb:
Come should really call themselves Coma. Again, "the blues" are
waved around by some as a reference point, but I can't hear it,
except in so far as this music is black-and-blue with emotional
bruises, blue like the rigor mortis of an overdose victim.

     If there's a gleam of brightness on the bleak horizon of US
rock, it takes the form not of positivity but peculiarity: the
absurdist rock of lo-fi art-punks like Royal Trux, Thinking Fellers
Union Local 282, Cul de Sac, Sun City Girls, Fantastic Palace, Wall
Drug, and others.  Operating somewhere to the left of Pavement and
Mercury Rev, these bands are heavily influenced by the warped and
wired fractures of The Fall, the fissile soundscapes of Faust and
Can, and Sonic Youth's oldstyle guitar-reinvention. Although they
have a similar experimental approach to the British avant-rock
fringe (Moonshake, Earwig, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, Papa
Sprain etc), the US weirdos are still somewhat restricted by their
guitar-fetishism.  US rock has yet to embrace the psychedelic
possibilites of sampling: it still thinks disco sucks.  The two
Brit-rock pinnacles of the Nineties-Primal Scream's "Higher Than The
Sun" and MBV's "To Here Knows When"-could never have happened
without rave culture.  But even with their lo-fi Luddite tendencies,
these art-punks know how to marvel, rather than wallow in the mire
of moroseness.

[footnote: now i would much rather listen to the mire-of-morose bands of that era - Alice of Chains above all, but probably Kyuss and possibly even Wool whoever the fuck they were - than any of them lo-fi record-clerk collector/zine-ed type bands]


Arturo Calderon said...

Hi, Simon. By reading Energy Flash and some of your articles on hip hop is realy clear that anything that is too backpack/indieslacker/ geektronica is not going to get any favour from you and I kind of see why. Some undie hip hop is too focus on "complex" rhymes instead of beats, bands like Car Seat Headrest are too musically conservative and some albums by Autechre and Squarepusher are weird from the sake of being weird. I would like to know if you favour any "indie" or "slacker rock album from the nineties apart from "Yrself Steam" and "Slanted and enchanted". Greetings from Lima, Peru.


i liked the all the slacker-rock stuff in the late 80s - like Dinosaur Jnr, Replacements, Husker Du etc. I was pretty into the 90s lo-fi stuff at first but then it started to seem a dead end, or at least not pushing forward the way that the early post-rock stuff (Seefeel, Main, Techno Animal, Disco Inferno, Insides, Pram, Laika, Moonshake etc etc) was. Like it was record-collector rock.

But i did like Thinking Fellers Union. Royal Trux were one of my favorite groups of that era - listened to Cats and Dogs recently and it still sounded amazing. Probably it would be Slanted and Enchanted and the early Pavement EPs that still sounded really good to me, but it's been a long while since i listened. Similary it's been a long time since i listened to Mercury Rev - loved that album and Boces and "Carwash Hair"

Tim 'Space Debris' said...


This has made me wanna look up Wool on youtube.....almost. I recall the name but I'm not sure I ever heard them.

I remember Paw who had a song about a dog. Grunge was weird.

I was a huge Pavement fan. Now I'd prefer to listen to Smashing Pumpkins which is funny because I hated them and Pavement even had a song dissing them. I just can't help but think Pavement were snobby little turds who somehow thought they were more original than The Smashing Pumpkins because they had cooler influences. Swell Maps/The Fall (for Pavement) over My Bloody Valentine/Rush (for Smashing Pumpkins). How does that work? Malkmus sucked me in for a few years until I realised he was full of shit and just as derivative as anyone else.


used to hate Smashing pumpkins (except for "1979" which always liked) but warmed a bit to them over the years (can't deny "Rat in A Cage")... it's his personality that is problem isn't it, he seems such a dick

i haven't listened to Pavement in years, i do wonder if i would find the group far less impressive than i thought it was at the time of those early EPs and Slanted and Enchanted.... it is a bit record-clerk / record collection eclectically derivative.

lost interest really rapidly at the time as they got more song-oriented. "cut my hair" - never understood why that was considered such an immense, era-defining song.

another one i've not relistened to is Mercury Rev, similar concerns that it would seem mystifying what i saw in them

re Wool that phase when the majors didn't know what they were doing is quite fascinating, they signed all kinds of odd stuff that didn't have a hope of being commercial, bands whose names i can't even even remember. Codeine? Melvins even were on a major for a while.

Tim 'Space Debris' said...

I can't think of who comes across as a bigger dick, Malkmus or Corgan? Different shades of wanker, I suppose. It would have been great if Corgan wrote an answer song to Pavement's 'Range Life'. That was an opportunity missed.

Yep Pavement post-'Watery Domestic EP' sucked. The earlier stuff is mildly diverting now whereas some Smashing Pumpkins tunes Disarm, Today, 1979 etc. are rather majestic.

The early David Baker era Rev still sound splendid to these ears.

Wool were ex-bandmates of Dave Grohl so that connection probably got them signed. I checked them out on youtube and they had a tune 'Slightly Under' that could have been a hit. It was a neat intersection between Alice In Chains & Helmet - generic but consummate.

Helmet were another one I hated at the time but found myself enjoying them last night particularly 'Unsung'.

re: Majors signing odd stuff. Who would have thought Buttholes circa Locust Abortion Technician would one day hit the charts. The story of commercial suicide major label grunge signings would make a great book, doncha think?

Also checked out Paw and their tune 'Jesse' last night, loved it. Another generic yet consummate performance. Were songs about dogs Grunge's greatest contribution to pop culture?