As promised last week, here is the second part of my favourite albums of the 90s. Same rules as before, this time the list takes a more metallic edge, perhaps. These ten are in chronological order, just about, by the way.
So, where to start? With a band that are almost impossible to categorise, I guess…
White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity
Back at the beginning of the nineties, Swans were beginning to mellow out. Burnt by their disastrous major-label experience with The Burning World, they retreated back out of this and recorded what is in my opinion the best album they ever released. While there is very little of the brutality of earlier albums, the cutting, sneering lyrics of despair and hatred remained allied with a fantastic collection of songs. I’ve even managed to find a couple of versions of tracks from this album on YouTube, too: a much changed live version of Song For Dead Time, and then an extraordinary solo take of Failure from just last year.
Faith No More had already broken through to the mainstream by this time, with previous album The Real Thing, but Angel Dust really was a step beyond. Ostensibly a metal band, FNM managed to also include funk, lounge, squalling electronics and samples, and film score covers, and then to piss their “fans” off released a cheesy cover of Easy! Either way, the album was brilliant, although how they held it all together when the band clearly hated each other even at this point I will never know. Of the various singles from the album, Midlife Crisis is the one that still gets played in clubs, sixteen years on, but I always thought that Everything’s Ruined was the better track (although the video has not aged well at all!)
ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ [Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed and The Way To Suck Eggs]
In the same year – arguably the year that alternative music had it’s greatest chance of success, Nirvana having blown the doors to the mainstream clean open the year before – Ministry got their first taste of truly metal mainstream success. It’s not as if this album was particularly accessible, by any stretch, either (Scarecrow is about as un-accessible as it gets!), but it did have it’s moments that seemed to catch on. Like the political fury of N.W.O., the rather more insular Just One Fix, and of course the immortal Jesus Built My Hotrod…
One band that never enjoyed mainstream success in their short career, other than an appearance on the soundtrack for The Crow, were this lot. Falling perhaps between the stools of industrial and alternative rock, perhaps the problem was labels not knowing how to pitch them. Which is a real shame, as this album was awesome. Very, very dark in tone, the sheer heaviness of the album came more from the atmosphere it created than the music itself. The two singles got quite a bit of airplay at the time, too – the blistering opener Perfect Tan (Bikini Atoll) and the track that I disovered them through: Butterfly Wings. They only did one more album after this (the more rock-orientated Gilt), before they dissolved in the face of yet more record label problems: one more album entitled Love Scenes From The Slave Market never saw the light of day.
Burn My Eyes
As the initial surge of grunge and alternative rock subsided, a new breed of metal bands began to appear that helped to revitalise the genre. Machine Head were one of these bands, and went from being a supporting act to their heroes to headlining the same stages within a matter of months. It wasn’t anything especially new, it was just done very well: hulking thrash metal with no frills. Well, that and a couple of anthemic tracks that have endured to this day: Davidian and Old…
Further down the west coast of the US, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a number of bands were beginning to break through that would eventually become part of what was known as “nu-metal”, and later became something of a joke. However, right back in the early days of this, some of the music was generally thrilling. And here was one such band – and their debut album was anything but accessible, with a savage, jagged recording that often submerged the vocals beneath brutal riffs and breakdowns. Even more surprising was singer Chino’s professed love of 80s goth like The Cure, and their willingness to move beyond their metal “tag”, particularly later in their career. Still, this album was a grower – it took a number of listens to fully appreciate it. All three singles are worth hearing: the opener Bored, the raging Engine #9 and the metal-dancefloor staple 7 Words.
Another metal band to come from LA were Tool, although they were (and are) about as far away from the ideals of nu-metal as it is possible to get. While their previous work was good, this album was unbelievable, and Tool have never bettered this. Never mind the varied music (ultra-technical metal, involving samples and swirling soundscapes at points), it was the subject matter that made it even more interesting, including humour, in-jokes and political comment. The astounding visual work of bandmember Adam Jones on the videos helped, too – for the tracks Ænima and Stinkfist.
A couple of years later saw something of a startling re-invention of a band who had been laying low for a while. Curve were originally seen as part of the shoegazing movement in the early ’90s, and gradually moved towards electronic-tinged rock with ’94 album Cuckoo. So when Chinese Burn appeared, full of thundering breakbeats and processed guitars, it was more than a little bit of a shock. The new, industrial-strength Curve was awesome, though – the rest of the album was more than a match for the blistering single.
The same year saw another phase in the gradual evolution of another British band – Pitchshifter. While in their early days they were little more than a grinding alternative to Godflesh, they gradually made a sound of their own by enthusiastically taking on drum’n’bass elements, and at no point did they sound more thrilling than this album. Interestingly, this was their debut on a major label (Geffen), too, and it was fantastic. Full of anthems that metal fans across the UK lapped up, they became a hell of a live draw and indeed still are on their now irregular appearances. The only single that had a video from this album was the evergreen Genius, and while it was also a great live track (just see this live version from their hometown of Nottingham in ’01]), tracks such as Microwaved, Subject to Status and WYSIWYG were all brilliant too.
The last album in my rundown of the 90s was this curious beast. When the opening track Here appeared on a music magazine CD, we’d never heard anything like it. Thumping industrial rock, built around a stirring orchestral sample, and the rest of the album wasn’t far behind. Other tracks mixed in gregorian chants, chain gang songs, and not far off everything but the kitchen sink: and the results were astounding. Particularly the two singles: Pretty When You Cry and Touched. While VAST have evolved since, in particular moving towards a slightly more mainstream sound, this album stands alone as a unique achievement.