Starting in the late 1980s but becoming huge in the early 90s, Grunge is the collective term for a group of bands that formed in Seattle at the time. Mixing simple chord progressions found in Punk music with the more intricate lead guitar found in classic rock, and filled with teenage angst, it was a strong contrast to the brighter, more upbeat Britpop of the UK.

Now, it’s over twenty years later, and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains have recorded comeback albums in the last few years, while Mudhoney and Pearl Jam never went away. But is grunge still relevant and worth listening to? First we need to relive the beginning.

The first notable Grunge band, though never commercially successful, were Green River. They helped define grunge with their one and only album, Rehab Doll (1988). With obvious influences from classic rock, punk, and metal, it allowed for a wide range of emotions whilst keeping a We-don’t-give-a-shit attitude. When the band split up, frontman Mark Arm formed Mudhoney, whereas bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard later went on to form Pearl Jam.

The British media touted Britpop as a war between Oasis and Blur, but over in Seattle, the Grunge scene, even though the music was heavier and explored darker themes, was collaborative. There were many bands but they all knew each other, supported each other, and learnt from each other.

After Green River disbanded, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard formed a new band, Mother Love Bone. Their frontman, Andrew Wood, was charismatic and played even the smallest venues as if they were where he’d always dreamed of playing, huge arenas. But he had one of the genre’s reoccurring problems, an addiction to heroin.

“Whenever people would start to get into drugs after that,” says Ament on Wood’s fatal overdose, “I always thought, I wish I had a picture of Andy when he was in the hospital, because it was so horrible.” When Wood was previously released from rehab, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame took him in as a housemate. They quickly became friends and would record the each other a new song every day on the four-tracks they kept in their bedrooms.

“Up to that point, life was really good for us as musicians…he was a beam of light above it all,” says Cornell on Grunge, and Wood’s death, “and to see him hooked up to machines, that was the death of the innocence of the scene. It wasn’t later when people surmised that Kurt blowing his head off was the end of the innocence, it was walking into that room.”

Cornell was writing music again just a few days later, and got together with Wood’s former bandmates, Ament and Gossard, along with guitarist Mike McCready, to record an album in honour of Wood. They also brought in Eddie Vedder to record vocals on some of the tracks. They called themselves Temple of the Dog, and they were a Grunge supergroup before any of them were famous. After their one, eponymous album was released in 1990, Vedder, McCready, Ament, and Gossard went to form Pearl Jam, and Cornell went back to work with Soundgarden, and they, along with Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, made Grunge the genre of the 90s.

Where are they now?

Soundgarden – King Animal – (2012)

Soundgarden were the first Grunge band signed to a major record label (A&M Records in 1988) but they only achieved commercial success when the genre was made popular by their Seattle contemporaries, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, in the early 90s. But after tiring of touring, the band split up in 1997, when Chris Cornell went on to form Audioslave with ex-members of Rage Against The Machine, and also recorded three solo albums. Matt Cameron, Soundgarden’s drummer, moved permanently to Pearl Jam.

Fifteen years later, Soundgarden reformed, releasing 2012’s King Animal.  It has all the grit and darkness that made Soundgarden famous the first time around, but all the songs seem to blend into one – there aren’t any truly stand-out tracks that come close to their earlier masterpieces such as Black Hole Sun. It’s kind of ironic that the highlights of this Grunge album are two acoustic songs, “Black Saturday” and “Halfway There”. They give Cornell’s strong, multi-octave voice a chance to shine because he isn’t having to fight noisy music.

 

Mudhoney – Vanishing Point – (2013)

Mudhoney are similar to Pearl Jam in that they never went away but carried on recording. 2013’s Vanishing Point, though nothing ground-breaking, has a very similar sound to frontman Mark Arm’s previous band, Green River, so it transports you back to Grunge’s earliest days. With a simpler sound than the other bands, it’s much more Punk. However, the lyrics have less depth and the songs aren’t as emotionally intense, though it has plenty of teenage angst if that’s what you’re looking for.

 

Stone Temple Pilots – Stone Temple Pilots – (2010)

After five albums, Stone Temple Pilots split in 2002. Vocalist Scott Weiland went on to release two albums with supergroup Velvet Revolver, but then Stone Temple Pilots returned with a self-titled album in 2012, their first since 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da.

While Pearl Jam and Nirvana were accused of becoming too commercialised, Stone Temple Pilots started off that way, unashamedly taking inspiration from all the other Grunge bands. Coming from Los Angeles rather than Seattle probably made it easier, as they had the opportunity to see the scene from the outside – their tactics worked and they were one of the most successful rock bands of the 90s, selling nearly 40 million records worldwide.

For those already fans of Stone Temple Pilots, their self-titled album is a great extension of their work, but not quite to the quality of their previous albums, and there’s nothing outstanding enough to attract any new fans. It’s Grunge, but, just like their first time around, of the most commercialised kind, and once again, it’s an album of imitation and influence, even with Weiland giving an uncanny Bowie impersonation on the song aptly titled “First Kiss On Mars”.

 

Stone Temple Pilots with Chester Bennington – High Rise EP (2013)

Stone Temple Pilots fired frontman Scott Weiland and replaced him with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. The High Rise EP sticks to Stone Temple Pilots’ policy of impersonation, and Bennington does a good job of mimicking Weiland, but they’d have been better off finding a singer who sounded completely different. The five songs are nothing more than inoffensive rock songs that wouldn’t be out of place played over the end credits of a Disney movie.

 

Pearl Jam – Backspacer (2009) and Lightning Bolt (2013)

Though Pearl Jam’s sound has been slowly becoming cleaner for years, 2009’s Backspacer took it to a whole new level, greatly toning down the grungy distortion that gave the genre its name. It’s a more upbeat album, showing their happiness that George W. Bush had finally left the White House – 2002’s album Riot Act featured a song in protest of the former president, titled “Bu$hleaguer”, which they played at gigs even as two-thirds of the audience booed. Their cleaner sound shows that they aren’t stuck in the past like Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Stone Temple Pilots. They still sound modern, a great rock band for the 21st century. Backspacer is an album that brought them a little closer to pop but without sounding commercialised.

2013 saw the release of Pearl Jam’s tenth studio album, Lightning Bolt, which shows them to be a band still with ideas even after 20 years plus writing and performing music. They’re still going strong, but with the members approaching fifty, it’s understandable that the songs don’t have the energy they used to. They are, however, growing old gracefully.

 

Alice In Chains – Black Gives Way To Blue (2009) and The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here (2013)

When Alice In Chains released Black Gives Way To Blue in 2009 after much inactivity from 1996 onwards due to previous singer Layne Staley’s substance abuse, and his subsequent death in 2002, they accomplished a near-impossible task. They managed to find William Duvall, a singer with a similar voice to Staley but who didn’t try to imitate, and they recorded an album that wasn’t just a nostalgia act, but genuinely had something new to say. They took the old Alice In Chains and let it evolve into something new rather than try to relive past glories.

With their latest album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, they continued to do what they do best, which is to use a complex mix of song structures, tempos, and time signatures to give an album of intriguing, thought-provoking songs full of dark themes. Just like their previous albums, the songs get better on repeated listens as you start to uncover their secrets. There’s still no other band that comes close to what they do.

Is Grunge Dead?

So, the bands that have made a comeback in the last few years seem to think there’s still something in Grunge. But is it still relevant, or is Grunge dead in the water?

Backspacer and Lightning Bolt are still very much Pearl Jam, but sound so different from their early albums that it’s debateable as to whether they can still be classed as Grunge, their only connection to the genre being that they formed in Seattle during the early 90s. Alice In Chains has always been an anomaly; a band which formed in Seattle at the same time as the other Grunge bands, but has always denied that they’re a Grunge band, saying instead that they’re heavy metal.

Whereas Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains are still going strong, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots have run out of steam. They simply have nothing left to say. It seems that Grunge is dead, with Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains the only survivors, still able to create high-quality, relevant music. The other Grunge bands still around are, however, nothing more than nostalgia acts.