The 1990’s are considered by many to be a step backward in the evolution of heavy metal – a blight on metal’s glorious history, if you will. Some people still insist that grunge “killed” metal, as if MTV ditching Firehouse and Winger videos in favor of Pearl Jam and Nirvana videos could really kill such a vital form of music as heavy metal. Nevermind the fact that a good deal of what was labeled and popularized (or semi-popularized) as “grunge” was pretty goddamn heavy in its own right (the Melvins, Tad, Mudhoney, Gruntruck, early Soundgarden, etc.). I own a tape with part of an episode of Headbanger’s Ball from December 1990, and I can say with authority that pop metal was becoming exceptionally stupid, even by the standards set by the likes of Poison (I’m looking at you, Trixter), so if anything, “grunge” did the world a favor by getting that shit off the airwaves.
What ultimately happened to heavy metal in the 1990’s is that it went back underground. Death metal, grindcore, black metal, and industrial metal, all with roots reaching deep into the early 1980’s, came of age and flourished in the 90’s. Sludge metal roared out of the swamps of Louisiana in the early 90’s, and some of the bigger names in thrash metal released some of their heaviest albums (Low (1994), Demonic (1997), and The Gathering (1999) by Testament are all phenomenal – and phenomenally heavy – albums). And swimming along right above the Underground River of 1990’s Metal was the mighty Pantera. Of course “nü metal” came along in the late mid-to-late 1990’s, and while most of it sucked beyond comprehension, it still managed to keep metal in the public eye, and even served as a gateway of sorts to a lot of 90’s kids, many of whom went on to discover good metal.
The point is that anyone who somehow thinks metal wasn’t thriving in the 1990’s is either woefully uneducated, or is just plain dumb. But that’s not really the point of all this. The real point is (I think), to discuss a few heavy albums that came out in the 1990’s which are not metal albums, per se (although I believe arguments could be made for at least one of them). Let’s dig in to that discussion presently. These are far from the only heavy non-metal albums from the 1990’s that I love and/or consider essential, but they are among my very favorite albums of the 1990’s, and a few of them are among my very favorite albums of all time.
1. Pixies – Trompe le Monde (released September 23, 1991) – This probably isn’t the Pixies’ best album (Kim Deal’s backing vocals are too noticeably absent for that), and it’s not my favorite Pixies album (that honor goes to 1990’s Bossanova – it’s just so goddamn mellow and spacey), and it doesn’t even technically sustain its heaviness throughout, but there are some bonafide heavy moments here, and the guitars absolutely shred in spots. I have a live performance on VHS from the Trompe le Monde tour, when the band played at Brixton Academy in London on June 26, 1991, and the heaviness is in full effect. You can watch it on the YouTube machine.
This is album opener “Trompe le Monde”. Dig that galloping bassline, right out of the Book of ‘Arry.
2. Faith No More – Angel Dust (released June 8, 1992) – After the smashing success of 1989’s The Real Thing, Faith No More set out to make an album that sounded nothing like its precursor, and they achieved that in spades. This marked relatively new vocalist Mike Patton’s first real songwriting efforts for the band (he joined FNM after nearly all of The Real Thing had been written) , and that made quite an impact on the overall sound of the album. It stands today as the band’s darkest and most beautiful album.
“Midlife Crisis” – This video was in pretty heavy rotation on MTV while metal was dead.
3. Helmet – Meantime (released June 23, 1992) – I consider every Helmet album up to and including 1997’s Aftertaste to be essential, but this is the one that got me into the band, and it forms a perfect bridge between the angry, noisy, feedback-drenched monster of a debut that is Strap it On (1990) and the much more melodic (but still heavy as fuck) follow-up, 1994’s Betty. Guitarist/vocalist Page Hamilton’s abrasive, barking vocals (and sometimes flat, slightly off-key singing), staccato riffs, odd time signatures, and one of the most talented and underrated rhythm sections in heavy music history are the staples of Helmet. You probably know “Unsung”, unless you’ve been in a cave for the past 20 years, so here’s a different song from Meantime.
“Ironhead” – I first heard this song on the “Brave New World” radio show on Rock 92 way back when.
4. Alice in Chains – Dirt (released September 29, 1992) – This is the one album on this list that I would argue is, in fact, a metal album; the crushing riffs, the down-tuned instruments, the searing (though brief) guitar solos, and Layne Staley’s dark, angst-ridden vocals all point to “heavy metal”. Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and whether or not you like the album, there’s no denying the darkness, the intensity, and the all-out goddamn heaviness that is Dirt. It remains one of my All-Time Top 20 Favorite Albums. I’ma share three songs from this heavy bastard – more specifically, the first three songs from Side 2 of the cassette that I finally wore out sometime in the mid-2000’s.
“Godsmack” (Don’t blame the song for the shitty band of the same name. It wasn’t AIC’s fault.)
5. Stompbox – Stress (June 7, 1994) – I covered this album at length back in 2011 on my other blog, which I never update, and in all likelihood, I’ll end up putting that post on this blog as soon as I finish this entry. At any rate, Stompbox released one album and broke up, and that album fucking rules. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a copy for purchase, but if you don’t care about artwork, lyrics, and liner notes, the former bass player made it available for download on his blog. Imagine if Rob Zombie stopped going “yyyyeeeeaaaaahhhh” every five seconds and started singing for Helmet, circa 1993. But from Boston. My favorite Stompbox song is unavailable on YouTube, so here’s my second favorite.
6. Toadies – Rubberneck (August 23, 1994) – I didn’t get into the Toadies at first, mostly because my friends who were into them were also into Bush and shit like that. In fact, it wasn’t until I saw them live (opening for One Hot Minute-era Red Hot Chili Peppers) that I began to understand how ferocious they were (and are, again).
“Tyler” – The whole song is creepy, but the big release beginning at 2:25 is so exquisitely creepy and beautiful.
7. Quicksand – Manic Compression (February 28, 1995) – Quicksand was a post-hardcore band formed by former Youth of Today bassist/Gorilla Biscuits guitarist Walter Schreifels. I generally don’t care for the “post-hardcore” label, but in the case of Quicksand, it fits – all the original members actually came from late-80’s hardcore bands. Their first album, 1993’s Slip, is both technically heavier and more highly regarded by fans and critics than Manic Compression, but I like Manic Compression a little bit more, probably because I heard it first. The riffs are big, and the bass work and drumming are rock solid. If you’re familiar with the movie Empire Records, you may recognize the song “Thorn in My Side”, which plays briefly while Gina (Renée Zellweger) dances on the couch in her Music Town apron and black panties. The song did not make it on the official soundtrack of the film, but a Better Than Ezra song did. Go figure.
8. Hum – Downward is Heavenward (January 27, 1998) – Hailing from Champaign, Illinois, Hum was poised to be the next big thing. They had a moderately big hit called “Stars” that you’ve probably heard, either on mid-to-late-90’s alternative radio, or on a Cadillac commercial from 2008 (possibly both). Downward is Heavenward is the band’s last album, and the riffs on this sumbitch are so big, you need a dumptruck to carry them. The lyrics are a sort of heavy, too, being all abstract and poetic and shit. I have listened to this album once a month, on average, since the day it was released. All their albums are good, but if you like big riffs, squalling feedback, and plenty of jingle-jangle, Downward is Heavenward is absolutely essential. It’s a perfect album for a rainy day, a sunny day, a snowy day, or any kind of night. It’s pretty much a perfect album.
That’s all I got for today. Thanks for reading, and keep on stayin’ heavy.