Something interesting has been happening in recent years. Bands are looking back at the 90s, filtering through the crap and exploring the gems. Cuz’ while pop rock, boy bands, and nu metal seemed ever-present and quite unescapable, some really good fuckin’ music happened. The 90s were actually 10 years long. That’s a lot of space for a lot of music – both great and wretched. This decade encapsulated 7th grade through the end of college for The Author. And like the available tunes, this time was both great and fucking wretched. Fans of the great music of the era would do well to pay attention to what’s out there today. I don’t intend to be as well-researched as some or have all the best and obscure references listed here. This is not Our Band Could Be Your Life, but…
…when 1990 hit I was doing time at Miller Grove Jr High. AKA Killer Grove. My adventurous and terrifying 7th grade year was the result of school busing. It was a terrible social experiment and I was beat regularly for being an underclassman, for being about as goofy as a 13 year old boy with a mullet can be, for being a whitey, and…for making heavy metal my music of choice. I had five shirts that I rotated; four of them were band shirts. My favorite of the bunch was my Anthrax T – it featured caricatures of the five New Yawkers on the front and “State of Euphoria” on the back. I dug some thrash metal, but mostly I dug Anthrax.
In 1990, things were on the precipice of slowing down, of introducing ballads, of not raging 100%. I didn’t know that then, but I certainly didn’t take it for granted at the time. Years later (call it ’95), still a devotee of Anthrax, I couldn’t help but be gravely concerned by their alternative leanings. There was a space for alternative or “college rock”; there was a space for thrash metal. Hell, there was a space for rap and pop. It was on the other side of the gym where the cool kids hung out. Not where I was. Anyway, only in the rarest of circumstances should these various spaces meet. So it was pretty disappointing to watch my favorite thrashers react to market forces and alter their sound accordingly (probably aiding and abetting said forces). Thrash was over.
That’s why in 2005 when I first heard Havok in Denver, Colorado I couldn’t believe my fucking ears. Kids playing pure, unadulterated thrash and fucking nailing it! It brought me back to wearing down Among the Living each morning on my walkman. Imagining circle pitting and headbanging at a concert if only my folks would let me go. Havok was so young at the time, that when a carload of us drove out to the suburbs to see them rock some parent’s garage on a Friday night, we missed the entire performance by not realizing that for the kids by the kids sometimes actually meant kids.
“Is Havok playing here tonight?”
“They already played an hour ago. They all went to McDonalds.”
“They already played an hour ago. They all went to McDonalds.”
My watch read 9:15.
Havok (all adults now) have turned into the forerunner of thrash metal revival worldwide. Churning out album after album of perfected thrash, their sound can’t be matched. Vocalist David Sanchez nails Testament’s Chuck Billy. Slayer, Exodus, Sepultura. They’re all represented. Played flawlessly without a trace of fucking irony. Any casual fan of metal will be impressed by their output. Because they are a touring machine, odds are they’ll be in your town soon. Of all the bands mentioned herein, I have been consistently pushing Havok the longest.
By 9th grade, I was serving sentence in Redneck, GA, population: get-me-the-hell-out-of-here. Sure, there were more metal heads around. More Metallica t-shirts. More mullets. There was also wide-spread racism. jaw-dropping use of history’s most frowned upon racial label. A far cry from being jumped because I was white kid with a shimmering gold 49ers Starter only two years past. But I guess that’s what white flight gets you. And my parents definitely high-tailed it after my year of living dangerously at Killer Grove.
My buddy Lanier (surely named after that large body of water just north of Atlanta) always seemed to be on the cutting edge of music. He also had all the best shirts from Gadzooks at the mall. Lanier introduced me to the Exploited, DRI, The Misfits and Nirvana. Yeah, yeah I know. I’m ordering him a fruit basket right now. I clearly remember sitting in the school auditorium and looking through his recent cassette acquisitions. There was one with a black and white negative cover photo that caught my eye. I took a look inside and just saw a guitar player loosely sprawled over a crumbling drum set. The expression on the guy’s face seemed to say that even he didn’t know what was going on. It was not rock n roll. It was chaos.
Two seconds later, Teen Spirit hit MTV.
Nirvana ended pretty early on in the 90s. The decade still had plenty of years left of corporate-created douchey bar bands passing off their brand of so-called new rock for Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains-inspired schlock. A deep voice, introspective lyrics, a cathartic chorus, and a tribal tattoo were all you needed, dude bro. Ug.
20 years later, small bands, real bands are picking up the influence. Not copying, but blending and giving nods to what happened in Seattle and reverberated globally. Punks who want to play some heavy shit. Start first with Black Wine. Three albums deep now (and a fourth on deck) – this is what happens when The Ergs! meets with the psychedelic crunch of Hunchback. It’s heavy and angry, but graceful, as if Neil Young was on SST. Sabbath riffage filtered through the Meat Puppets. Also exploding out of the Garden State are Screaming Females. Marissa Paternoster shreds like fuckin’ Angus Young behind Steve Albini’s production ala In Utero. Her throaty groan like a signature makes their sounds uniquely theirs. They’ve been pounding away for years with a prolific back catalog of ever improving tuneage and are well-deserving of their recent accolade. Finally, Big Eyes delivers a catchey punch of pop-driven rockers on their recent LP on Grave Mistake. Relocated from NJ to Seattle (go figure), think pared down 70s rock like the Runaways or early Kiss. While not relying too much on riffs, their infectious hooks get caught in the brain. It reminds me of bands like The Breeders that went down easy and made me feel good about myself amidst plenty of mid-teenage self-loathing.
Note: all of these three bands feature female vocals (at least partly). All of these bands have ties to NJ. They’re all power-trios. I’ll be damned.
Athens, GA was home to possibly the biggest alternative (cum mainstream) band of the 90s – REM. But REM had nothing to do with the post-hardcore/pop-punk/sludge-grind bands I was seeing in various basements around the isolated college town. DIY or die! We boycotted nearly every actual venue in town in favor of all-age spaces. Oblivion, Hot Water Music, Action Patrol, Ann Berretta, Promise Ring, Damad and a string of regional locals like Quadiliacha, The Martin Family, Tres Kids. It was loud, intimate, often boring, sometimes astounding.
Back then, I wore my hair long like an asshole. I wore shirts too big that concealed my freshmen 15 or my sophomore 25. I was pissed at everything, self-righteous and self-assured, but utterly confused. I might cringe at some of those memories, but mostly they elicit a smile or two. That’s why hearing bands today sincerely capture that 90s basement vibe warms my aging heart.
For any and all of you looking for that fix, I would direct you to two bands and labels of note. Tenement and their forthcoming record on Don Giovanni. Glass Hits and Snappy LittleNumbers out of Denver. Tenement just screams of the era. Buzz ala Dino Jr laced with uplifting, imperfect vocals. These guys are more prolific than my wallet will allow, but their Don Gio debut is bound to be worth the bucks. That label has supported many of the aforementioned and expertly caters to the genre. Chuck Coffey, aficionado of great music through and through, spearheads the Snappy Little Numbers label and relishes in nostalgia tuned to present day. Empty Palace emphasizes the 70s; Hooper, early 2000s pop-punk channeled through Sunny Day; Friends of Cesar Romero, Elvis fuckin’ Costello. For the purposes of today’s subject, I want to dwell on Glass Hits who again seem to conjure thoughts of dusty basements, of $5.00 shows, of barely-employed summers. When I first heard their LP, I immediately reached for disc 2 of my Dischord box set. But before long, I was listening to Void. Those demons exorcised, I got to go back to Glass Hits and truly dig their effort. Put them on your radar.
Now, I left out plenty of good bands here for sure. So many bands, so little…you know. And I held back on plenty of memories both important and embarrassing and irritating. Important, like Ken Stanton lending me Brain Drain, my first legit introduction to Ramones. Embarrassing, like belonging to the B-52s fan club. Irritating, like being forced to listen to the Metallica black album on repeat in gym class.
You’re doing yourself a disservice if you draw the line on your musical interests at a certain year. It’s easy to criticize and scapegoat influence as a deficit of originality. But don’t forget, Nirvana was heavily influenced by the likes of Pixies and Melvins. It seems like all the bands of that era owe a debt to Husker Du as well. Led Zeppelin stole blues riffs. So what? Influence, tribute, gratitude are crucial components. An old friend used to say while hunched over his fret-board, “talent borrows, genius steals.”