When grunge was the ‘alt’ in alt-prog

Intro: Dimitris Kaltsas
Translation: Alexandros Mantas

In the second half of the 1980s, the early progressive branches of the metal trunk, which was in full bloom in the then rock environment, were beginning to sprout. On the other hand, prog rock was in the doldrums and it was plain that a rejuvenating force which would include contemporary elements was necessary. At the same time, it was then when the grunge movement, a harder version of alternative rock, was beginning to launch in Seattle and would sweep swiftly over the local, and not only, underground scene. Spreading like wildfire, grunge became a culture with a dress code of its own, a lo-fi visual aesthetic, a general blurriness generating from alcohol, but mostly from heroin, which dominated the beginning of the 90s claiming many lives way before their time had come and finally drowning the last rock movement with revolutionary facets so ingloriously and as suddenly as it intruded our lives some years before.

Yet, the musical imprint lingered on and it took some time for its reverberation to become clear over other genres or it was debased, on purpose or not (until the 00s of course..). The swift ascent of grunge to the top and into a main trend was a reason to be considered by the metal and hard rock fans as an enemy. Not without a good reason, since the alternative turn of Queensrÿche in Hear In the Now Frontier (1997), Anthrax in Sound of White Noise (1993), Def Leppard in Slang (1996) and Mötley Crüe in their self-titled album (1994) didn’t find them on top form. But grunge had also three direct, beneficial effects. Firstly, it was largely thanks to it that hair metal came to its end. Secondly, it contributed mighty to the musical amalgam of Tool. Thirdly, some bands dotted around the globe embraced the expressive elements of grunge, as well as its punky approach, often inserting funk metal elements and blending them ingeniously with progressive music (mostly prog metal that was at its peak back then). Thus there was the initial form of alt-prog, way before post-hardcore, post-rock, post-metal or mathcore claim for themselves the “alt” niche of crossover / alt-prog.

And yet, it was these bold bands that blended successfully and inspiringly the assorted sonic trends that paid the price of breaking new ground and disbanded before they would savour the recognition they deserved. Let us dig into the past back in the 90s and recall some of them (in chronological order).


 

Mind Over Four

Back in 1983 in LA, four restless musicians released a new-wave / post-punk EP. In 1987, in a time when glam rock ruled, the amazing progressive metal / proto-alternative album entitled Out Here burst on to the world. Mind Οver Four (1989) and The Goddess (1990) followed it up and the alternative elements were multiplied. In 1993 with grunge on the crest of its wave, they had already toured with Pantera and Prong, among others, and they released their best (probably) album, Half Way Down. Tempos are slowed down here, the rhythms are often dragging and the result is a mixture of aggressive and progressive music where progressive metal, as essence, coexists with the alternative / grunge element in equal doses. Their biggest alternative influence is, to my ears, Jane’s Addiction. The lyrics are more personal and allegorical than ever (and clearly not so sociopolitical), in unison with the reality of grunge’s Generation X. Empty Hands that came next was a pure alternative album and it sounds rather topsy-turvy.

Mind Over Four. Four musicians with different musical background in a fair unification where the autonomous artistic expression is the only prerequisite. Unique as they were, they never ripped off nor did they influence any other band, at least not consciously. But they still remain an object of desire among music lovers who are well aware of the importance of their opus.

Petros Papadogiannis

Selected discography: Out Here (1987), Mind Over Four (1989), The Goddess (1990), Half Way Down (1993)

 

Kings X

This legendary trio from Springfield achieved to define anew the American rock in a no-nonsense way, bringing emphatically back to the fore the harmony in vocals. The Beatlesque vocal lines entangled in soul / gospel sensitivities are credited to the iconic figure and personality of the bassist / singer Doug Pinnick. The result of this was a highly successful offset to the heavy guitars and the groovy rhythms and of course compositions that stick to your mind and lingering feelings. The scorching solos of the amazing Ty Tybor provide the necessary thrust to their intricate and plethoric music. Five wonderful records from 1988 to 1994, five reasons to become fond of them. It was a mere coincidence that popularity and success slipped out of their hands. During the same time, grunge from Seattle was galloping and rendered everything else out-dated. The then alternative rock groups had but two choices: to streamline their sound or find themselves on the periphery. King’s X proved themselves to be flexible enough and grunge turned out to be a compatible “donor”. The outcome is impressive and perceptible on their self-titled album (1992) and Dogman (1994). One way or another, thanks to their progressive slant, restlessness and agility never came in short supply. That’s why they are still in business up to this day.

Giannis Zavradinos

Selected discography: Out of the Silent Planet (1988), Gretchen Goes to Nebraska (1989), Faith Hope Love (1990), King’s X (1992), Dogman (1994) 

 

Last Crack

If somebody ever asks you for an early 90s band whose music encompasses all the features of the hard American sound of the time, but it has to be an obscure one, then your answer has to be the following: Last Crack. The strengths of metal are blended with funk and alternative on the two seminal albums they bequeathed us. Especially Burning Time (which was released in the same year as Badmotorfinger no less) is recommended to every fan of alternative rock and metal. Grunge is present all over the place in its most hard rock and metal side (Alice in Chains, Soundgarden). Granted, Buddo isn’t as good as Cornell, but the way he utilizes his voice while singing on the higher register is astonishing. The compositions on both records flaw without a hitch, but this is not an easy listening. The progressive element is in the DNA of the songs and the hooks, as well as twists and turns are far from absent. I don’t know if this is the reason that success was elusive for them or was it the circumstances or the poor promotion. The only certainty is that their musical legacy sounds still fresh up to this day and – in hindsight – it deserves a place in the pantheon of the alternative rock of the 90s.

Kostas Barbas

Discography: Sinister Funkhouse #17 (1989), Burning Time (1991)

 

Galactic Cowboys

Galactic Boys are for sure a special case of a band. After all, Christians coming from Texas with a particular progressive angle in their music is not commonplace. Since they were friends with the members of King’s X, they managed to support many bigger bands, but they never achieved a breakthrough. Their style might well be described as a mixture of alternative rock, thrash metal (Anthrax and Metallica mostly) and progressive metal. In spite of the heavy parts, their music carried a pop carelessness mainly through the vocals emanating a feeling I would call “college rock”. Grunge that reigned at the time obviously influenced them, and makes its presence felt sometimes more and sometimes less. Especially their third album, Machine Fish could be described as thrasy-metallica-grunge. Their style is quite distinguishable, even though they evolved in all their LPs and one EP they released from 1991 to 2000 (out of which Space in Your Face and Machine Fish are the best). The only thing that someone could impute to them is that they never pulled off to release an undisputable masterpiece. Nevertheless, fans of musical paradoxes and uncommon sound mixtures might as well give them a chance.

Kostas Barbas

Selected discography: Galactic Cowboys (1991), Space in Your Face (1993), Machine Fish (1996)

 

The Beyond

In 1988 in Derby of Great Britain, four weirdos that felt natural to them to cover AC/DC and Mudhoney alike, formed The Beyond. Their live shows landed them a contract with Harvest. In 1991, in a time when the sound of Seattle was the next big thing, the British released Crawl, a fantastic album of hypertechnical progressive metal / rock (the bassist and the drummer are killing it) with non-metal vocals, jazzy rhythms and alternative and early grunge elements. The follow-up came two years later. Chasm, though less technical than the debut album, is a rare composite of prog and the then alternative rock trend. With regard to their music, Rush (they toured with them!) meet Seattle. The vocal melodies of Pearl Jam in Ten flirt with the melancholic guitar moments of Alice in Chani’s Dirt in a prog framework.

Even though they had a strong label that supported them, they never pulled big crowds. Yet, it will come as no surprise if I ever learn that members of Tool or Deftones cited them as a favourite group of theirs. The Beyond were literally “beyond”; ahead of their time, more than the listener could ever imagine.

Petros Papadogiannis

Discography: Crawl (1992), Chasm (1993)

 

Thought Industry

The fact that they signed to the mighty Metal Blade, championed by Jason Newsted, provided them the opportunity to embark on their artistic vocation which was to break down boundaries that would lead, in turn, to the composition of original music. Dali’s art that adorned the cover of their first album betokened a content of equal aesthetic. The surreal lyrics (with doses of political commentary) emerged from a universe where thrash met alternative rock (mainly grunge) and punk. In songs like Daughter Mobius there are obvious nods to the alternative sound and they became all the more evident in The Chalice Vermillion. The title-track also stands out with its frenzied alternating rhythms. The whole album suggests that there is no disposition whatsoever for musical compromises. Grunge is the vehicle the band was looking for to convey a fraction of its experimentations. The coherence of the album that balances between rhythms, which on the one hand nod to Primus and Faith No More and on the other hand to refined thrash, is a tall order in its own right.

Τhe band finds in the grunge field the space to unfold its musical experimentations and prove that the rebirth of progressive metal would go through seemingly alien paths, but the final result would be a testimony of how fertilizing this influence was.

Christos Minos

Selected discography: Songs for Insects (1992), Mods Carve the Pig: Assassins, Toads and God’s Flesh (1993)

 

I Mother Earth

If there is a group in the alt-prog scene of the 1990s that bounced to a wider audience, then I Mother Earth from Canada is the one you are looking for. The albums Dig (1993), Scenery and Fish (1996) and Blue Green Orange (1999) made it to the top of the local charts and their music was marked as an extraordinary mixture of complex grunge and Rush’s prog (it is not accidental that Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson guested respectively on the songs Good for Sule and Like a Girl). The slapping bass, the heavy riffs and tribal percussion as a derivative of the alternative grunge generation provided a solid base to their technical knowledge so as to unfold unknown virtues that were present to the best part of the other side of rock. Since Edwin departed and thus their music was deprived of his vocals, the grunge aesthetic was considerably diluted while the electronic elements and other modernisms that were introduced in stages alienated them from their well-crafted sound. As a result, their latest release The Quicksilver Meat Dream (2003) fails to focus properly on a style and consequently fails to make an impression compared to their back catalogue in the 90s.

Alexandros Topintzis

Selected discography: Dig (1993), Scenery and Fish (1996), Blue Green Orange (1999)

 

Damn the Machine

Damn the Machine was the brainchild of original Megadeth guitar-wizard Chris Poland and they released their only self-titled album in 1993. The band fused many different styles like jazz, blues, progressive, thrash and brought to table something very unique, highly original, twisted, and yet entertaining. The musicianship is very strong, the songs are very well structured, Poland really knew how to create very enjoyable and jazz influenced guitar parts. His precision in the guitar solos is quite impressive, while he focuses on emotion and melodies rather than virtuosity. Clemmons’ vocals are clean and unique, and perfectly befit the music. The rhythm section is amazing throughout the album. Almost all of the songs are politically centered in the vein of Queensrÿche, Warrior Soul and Pearl Jam. The grunge influences are very obvious, especially in the lyrics and some psychedelic instrumental parts. The highlight of their short career was the tour with Dream Theater. Unfortunately this record passed under the radar of many prog metal / rock fans back then and despite the good reviews, the band broke up soon after recording some demos and never released a second album. In many ways Damn the Machine were way ahead of their time and definitively deserved much more recognition.

Goran Petrić

Discography: Damn the Machine (1993)

 

Depressive Age

Since they defected from the “Real Socialism” of the east part of Germany to the “free” west one, Depressive Age never refrained from taking chances in their musical career. When they were taking their first steps, they fell sophistically into step with the trends of the time and the thrash movement that was on the crest of its wave. Album-by-album, they went off the thrash field and the incorporation of fresh elements was a successful procedure which was honed to perfection on their swan song, Electric Scum.

Grunge, gothic and industrial were mixed with hard metal riffs, acoustic guitars and a reminiscence of the past days of thrash. The songs are mostly short in duration and they draw their straightforwardness from the momentum of grunge and the teachings of Alice in Chains that always maintained their progressive slant. Moreover, the Faith no More (Teenage Temples) influences enrich the final outcome which is totally compatible with the distinguishable voice of Jan Lubitzki who sketches out the ambiguous social reality of his time.

In Electric Scum grunge breathed new life into metal and it is a testimony to the way that the latter was benefitted from their encounter by engulfing sounds that were once demonized…

Christos Minos

Selected discography: Lying in Wait (1993), Symbols for the Blue Times (1994), Electric Scum (1996)

 

Floater

A little farther to the south of Seattle in Portland, Oregon, Floater were formed in 1993 and are active up to this day without discontinuity. There are two main reasons why they are included in this feature, and these reasons are their first (and best) two albums. The debut Sink (1993) is drenched in grunge, nodding to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains as well as to purveyors of the selfsame musical groundbreaking effort that Floater ventured (e.g.  Depressive Age). The minor-as-it-gets groove of the band, combined with sharp riffs and aggressive disposition produced the sound of Floater, a sound that could be viewed as the precursor of System of a Down seven years later. But their glimpses into their future are not confined here. In the mysterious Glyph (1995), the wicked grunge attractiveness is in line with ethereal, psychedelic melodiousness, unpredictable prog structures and rhythm changes that, at times, cross-refer to the yet-to-come Tool.

Floater never made it to enjoy the recognition that the uniqueness of their music unquestionably dictated. Those (few) who were hooked to their music are still scratching their heads how three people only (Robert Wynia – bass, vocals, keyboards, David Amador – guitar, Peter Cornett – drums, guitar, vocals) gave birth to Glyph that, in their eyes, is one of the well-kept secrets of the 90s.  

Dimitris Kaltsas

Selected discography: Sink (1994), Glyph (1995)

 

Cherub

Cherub could be the strangest and most obscure band in this feature and they were the only genuine representatives of this sound in the metal-dominated Germany of the 90s. They were formed in 1994 and in the same year they released their debut album through Massacre Records which was also meant to be their swan song. After that, their traces were lost and they remain up to this day a mystery band that took its chances not to jump in the progressive metal bandwagon of the time, but instead they opted for an unbeaten path. Sarc Art (1994) sounds mοre grunge than metal whereas the progressive element is present in the structures of the songs rather than in the performances of the musicians. The double vocals inevitably bring Alice in Chains to mind while the heavy guitars imbue the compositions with the necessary intensity. Their only album is impressively homogenous, even though is hobbled by the flat and dry production, weak vocals and some iffy parts. Nevertheless, Cherub are one of the kind in the German prog metal, projecting rock onto metal in tunes like Bestial Inner Being and Resignation Maintain? that will always sound as the aesthetic crowning achievements of a band that didn’t make it to mature.

Dimitris Kaltsas

Discography: Sarc Art (1994)

 

Kyyria

Back in the mid-90s, along with the mutation of metal, the youth was experiencing its own “trainspotting”. Grunge, techno and drugs defined the sound of the time and influenced all and sundry. Even in the infertile (with regard to the other branches of rock, excepting metal) Finland the long-forgotten Kyyria are referred now as the ex-band of Santeri Kallio, Niclas Etelävuori (keyboards, bass respectively in Amorphis) and Mika Karppinen (drummer in HΙΜ). In spite of the success they achieved and their career, my opinion is that none of the aforementioned names is included in the credits of an album better than Blessed Ravings (1994) up to this day at least. With keyboards that differentiate ecstatically the sound they adopt on the guitars and the vocals (an odd mixture of Queensrÿche, Alice in Chains and Faith No More), Kyyria were probably not too anal about the crucial details that may be the key factors for the commercial success of an album (loose production, ugly cover), but on the pure artistic side they concocted a weird piece for its time. Otherworldly vocals, rhythmic – almost dance – sequences back-to-back with funky passages, undisputable high technique at the rhythm section and, mainly, its intangible structure as a whole are the things that strongly define one more forgotten monument of the 90s. Despite their fantastic debut, the band was a glutton for ecstasy pills and consequently disbanded before the end of the decade.

Alexandros Topintzis

Discography: Blessed Ravings (1994), Alien (1997), Inner Wellness (1998)

 

Haji’s Kitchen

It’s true that Lewisville is a bit far off from Seattle, but the Texans Haji’s Kitchen were a unique case in prog metal, not only because of their origin but in a broader sense. They were formed in 1992 and the self-titled debut was released three years later through the legendary Shrapnel Records. From the cover onwards the grunge influences leap to the eye and they are verified by the sleazy guitar styles, the sickening vocal melodies and the voice of Eddie Ellis which brings to mind Staley (and to a lesser extent their homie Anselmo). The ten impeccable compositions are an enjoyable mixture of grunge and groovy Pantera-like metal in the prog context of precise playing with riffs, solos (Head and Stine are an amazing guitar duo), killer rhythm section and melodies that impress anyone who wasn’t aware of them until now. The fact that they gained no traction put them into a hiatus until a few members resurfaced with our endeared Eniac Requiem (Space Eternal Void, 1998) whereas the band reappeared in 2001 with the good, but inferior Sucker Punch (2001) and in 2012 with all the original members and the addition of Daniel Tomkins (TesseracT, vocals) with the even more technical and hopeful Twenty Twelve.

The magic of the debut album of Haji’s Kitchen is immune to the passage of time and it is a testament that the prog gems are very often hidden in obscure places, regardless of the era.   

Dimitris Kaltsas

Selected discography: Haji’s Kitchen (1995), Sucker Punch (2001)

 

Mindfeed

Mindfeed was a British band formed by vocalist Glynn Morgan (Threshold) in 1996. Their debut album Perfect Life was released one year later. The sound of the band was set somewhere between prog metal and grunge rock. The album is full of amazing crunchy riffs and in every song Morgan’s voice is the focus point. My favorite song on their debut is Mother with great guitar harmonies, dark atmosphere and lyrics influenced by Alice in Chains. Even Morgan sounds a lot like Staley at some moments.  A mere 11 months after their debut, they released a second album, the darker and heavier Ten Miles High which is even better than their debut. Here we find stellar musicianship, more aggressiveness, Morgan‘s voice in top form and the overall sound more mature, while the lyrics are very meaningful and inspired. After a brief tour with Skyclad and Symphony X, they started working on a third album, but they broke up in the middle of the process. Mindfeed never gained a huge popularity in metal circles, but they remain as one of the first European bands that combined prog metal with grunge and paved the way for many others.

Goran Petrić

Discography: Perfect Life? (1997), Ten Miles High (1998)

 

Engine

Engine never caused a stir among the metal and alternative fans. Nevertheless, their first two albums didn’t go unnoticed, especially by the fans of Fates Warning. Both Engine (1999) and Superholic (2002) were embraced equally by the devoted fans of progressive music and by listeners favorably inclined towards more straightforward stuff. The final outcome is a marriage of a grungy nu metal amalgam, radically different by the proposal of Fates Warning or the direction of Agent Steel of the guitarist Bernie Versailles. We should stress that Joey Vera, the noteworthy bassist of Armored Saint / Fates Warning, but also the drummer Pete Parada with his punk rock past provide the necessary staccato / groovy base where Versailles’ sharp riffs are built upon. The two albums yield a new community with regard to style and genre, only that the self-titled debut is somewhat (or much more) weaker than the very good Superholic. The band manages loosely the concept aura of Alder / Vera, allowing to the sharp riffs of Versailles to come to the fore which are typical of the alternative, but also metal trends that were in vogue at the time. Therefore, the band showcases an easy-to-grasp compositional inspiration under the shade of grunge / alternative metal which, truth be told, isn’t particularly missed by many.

Thomas Sarakintsis

Discography: Engine (1999), Superholic (2002)

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