Metal Evolution Ep 7 – An Open Apology to Nickelback
When it comes to the heavy metal family tree, grunge would best be described as the moody, distant, possibly illegitimate cousin who shows up to family reunions in ripped jeans and heavily intoxicated. Who is this guy, anyways? Is he even a part of the family? Does anyone even know where he came from? I’m really wearing this metaphor out, but you get the picture. The question is: Does grunge have a place in the heavy metal family tree? Welcome to episode seven of Metal Evolution and welcome, to Seattle. Hope you like rain.
(Watch this episode of Metal Evolution HERE, if you missed it.)
There are a few parallels between heavy metal and grunge that are undeniable: both are, well, heavy and both contain an element of aggression. But heavy metal has always been known for its musical and visual spectacle and virtuosity. Grunge, on the other hand, is all about stripped down, functional musicianship. No fuss, no glitz, no glamour – just raw emotion and loud noises.
This disassociation from the “metal” label was especially important for grunge when it first began to emerge from the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1980s, a time when the word “metal” evoked images of leather platform boots, eyeliner and hairspray. As DJ and journalist Jeff Gilbert notes, being left out of this group was probably in grunge’s best interests because at the time, the genre of metal came with goofy connotations and was seen as a joke to many of those outside the L.A. scene. In fact, anyone Sam Dunn interviews within the first ten minutes of this episode seems to vehemently deny any connection between grunge and metal whatsoever. But is there really no connection?
Hiro Yamamoto from Soundgarden describes both genres as heavy music, complete with loud guitars, powerful drums and wild kicking and screaming on stage and Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records agrees: “It sounded like metal to me. I liked it.” Many grunge musicians grew up listening to metal and appreciating that school of thought, but it was an equal love for the raw and gritty grassroots attitude of punk that also helped grunge begin to evolve into a unique and distinct style. Grunge picked up where the heavy metal of the 1970s left off, but it wove a punk ethos into the equation.
All genres of music are shaped by the cities they exist in. From the New Wave of British Heavy Metal to the superficial glamour of the Sunset Strip, we’ve seen the way geography influences sound. So what was it about Seattle, Washington – a tertiary U.S. market that’s closer to Canada than basically anything else – that fostered the development of this highly influential genre of music? Combine the weather (bleak and rainy) with the economy at the time (crappy) and there really wasn’t a whole lot to do besides drink booze and play music.
Very few major tours came through the Pacific Northwest at the time so in Seattle, live shows were basically just big neighbourhood parties. You began to care more about your friend’s band than any mainstream act making waves on the national scene. But when Black Flag made a stop in Seattle in 1984 and people were exposed to their slow, hauntingly heavy sound, the city took notice and grunge began to find its sound.
When grunge began to emerge, Seattle was an interesting blend between a traditional blue collar mentality and an emerging yuppie community. These two contrasting groups and attitudes created the perfect environment for a gritty music scene to form that combined small town communal idealism with the rebellious punk ethos and the heavy sound of metal. Bands began to emerge like The Melvins, who are credited with introducing grunge to the Drop D tuning that would become the defining sound of the genre.
The first record company to recognize the opportunities presented by the new Seattle sound was Sub Pop Records, who turned it into a hype machine via legendary bands like Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Of course, no one seems to agree on whether these bands should be classified as grunge, metal or something else entirely. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was well versed in metal but drew from all genres and all influences as a songwriter. This is what made him so prolific; Kurt Cobain was unapologetically full of nothing but raw emotion at a time when the hard rock scene was constantly trying to define itself as larger than life. As Deena Weinstein from DePaul University puts it, “Kurt had pain in his voice that metal didn’t have.” Men in hard rock and metal up until this point were supposed to be king of the world, with contained aggression measured out in perfect portions. Not this.
Along with Nirvana, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam brought something contrary to what metal had long been known for: introspective, angst-ridden songwriting. This is what made grunge a different beast than what heavy metal was traditionally known for being. Naturally, Sam Dunn begins to question his decision to include grunge in the heavy metal family portrait at all.
But if there’s any band whose sound features undertones of an undeniable metal influence, it’s Soundgarden. Their early recordings were a hypnotizing and complex set of melodies, reminiscent of heavy metal’s mythological grandiosity. Although they’ve never self-identified as metal, their work with legendary metal producer Terry Date gave their sound an unmistakable heavy metal feel which some critics labeled as being too “slick” or sonically grandiose to be grunge.
But if there’s one band under this Seattle umbrella that would identify as metal, it would be Alice in Chains, right? I mean, there were on the damn Clash of the Titans tour! In this episode, they are referred to as the “missing link” between metal and grunge which may explain why hardcore metal fans pelted them with crap during their Clash of the Titans tour appearance. But they took it like champs, threw up their middle fingers and played on. We could probably look at this moment as the genesis of grunge. Or maybe I’m just being dramatic.
As quickly as grunge became a full-fledged musical movement, Marc Jacobs began putting flannel on the runway and charging $100 for the torn up shirt your dad wears when he does home renovations. Grunge became a commodity. The genre was dealt another heavy blow when Kurt Cobain was found dead of an apparent suicide in 1994. Then Soundgarden announced their (first) retirement after twelve years together. Then Pearl Jam took a hiatus. By the late 90s it seemed grunge was fading as quickly as it had appeared, but as the next crop of bands to emerge would demonstrate, it wasn’t fading – it was evolving.
The next wave of grunge ushered in a group of polarizing bands like Days of New, Creed and Nickelback. Although some disgruntled music fans would scoff at referring to these bands as grunge, the fact of the matter is that they emerged out of the dust that grunge had left behind. Whether that constitutes as being explicitly derived from the genre or not is up for debate. There is a consensus among virtually every band interviewed in this episode; no one wants to take responsibility for this second generation, what they refer to as “grunge light.” But naturally, this less angst-ridden melodic music tickled the fancy of every major label looking for radio-friendly hits. One of the most recognizable traits of this new grunge generation is the vocal style of “yarling” derived from heavy, baritone voices like Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley. (Cue: Hilarious attempts by multiple interviewees at replicating this “yarl.”) While Eddie’s came out of a real and honest place, it seems it was only a redundant pre-requisite for the grunge light generation, a trademark of this new diluted version of alternative music.
The best – and most surprising – part of this episode is that Sam Dunn actually interviews members of Creed and Nickelback. I don’t know why this came as such a shock to me. Maybe because it’s so easy to sh*t on these bands, I figured that’s all we’d be doing. But like a good documentary should, Metal Evolution allows both sides to have their say. And it turns out Mark Tremonti and Scott Stapp from Creed don’t even consider the band to be grunge – just the product of a music scene that had no identity. Chad Kroeger, frontman of Nickelback, explains that at the time (the late 90s) any music that was coming out was deemed as “post-grunge” no matter what it was. No one knew what was supposed to happen next.
By the dawn of the 2000s, the new wave of grunge had turned the genre into a stadium spectacle with “real” grunge icons like Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains joining bands like Nickelback on stage. An entirely new audience are identifying with this music, enjoying the spectacle of jam-packed live shows and having life-changing experiences that will turn into memories they will never forget. And this really got me thinking. Grunge burned out for a number of reasons, but what becomes evident during this episode is that none of those reasons were named Creed or Nickelback. So who’s to say that these bands are rip-offs or are in any way less authentic than their predecessors? How unfair and elitist is it of us to badmouth these bands simply because they aren’t the bands that came before them? I guess what I’m saying is: I’m sorry, Nickelback.
Oh, Metal Evolution. How you make me rethink… well, everything.
Catch new episodes of Metal Evolution every Friday at 10ET/7PT.
- Sarah Dawley