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While the ’80s are credited for the explosion of rock genres like punk, new wave, alternative, metal and shoegaze, it wasn’t until the ’90s that bands crystalized these disparate elements and produced some of their best work.
Born of the self-conscious clashing of styles that characterized the previous decade, the ’90s emerged with its own groove: an organic synergy of ’80s Postmodernism and ’50s idealism, rich with irony and gothic imagery, something unique and strangely elegant. It was never meant to last, but there remains a timelessness to this special aural era, before boy bands, bland arena rock, and clown metal took over the landscape. Some bands knew when to call it quits, for the sake of their art, forever solidifying their sound in the amber of this awesome decade.
One of the signature rock genres of the ’90s was that noir-ish, opiate take on pop music that came to be known as grunge. Bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam tapped into the vein and were catapulted to fame, but none became bigger than Nirvana.
Kurt Cobain’s songwriting and vocal clarity, combined with his good looks and playful sardonicism, made him the “voice of his generation,” a title he took umbrage with. Cobain felt deeply troubled by the pressures of fame and expectation. In tandem with heavy drug use and crippling stomach pain, perhaps he wondered if he could continue to produce the quality of music that adoring fans expected.
Nirvana’s bleak 1993 record, In Utero, might be their best. It combines the anthemic zeal of the earlier albums with a stark beauty and fascination with birth and death. How could they possibly top it? They couldn’t. Kurt took his own life on April 5th, 1994. It was a culturally devastating act that, ironically, helped to preserve his life’s work. His discography survived intact.
Alice In Chains, who toyed with thrash and melodic hooks in the ’80s, found a home for their sound in the ‘90s and eventually became a cult grunge band in their own right. Their masterpiece album, 1992’s Dirt, is the culmination of that discipline and a fresh set of doomy pop songs about Vietnam and, yes, heroin addiction. While not quite as good, their following album, Tripod, was still fairly interesting. Maybe it’s the album Cobain had been afraid to make, something merely decent. Layne Staley died shortly after Tripod was released and the band continued on with a new singer.
The Pixies struck gold in the ’90s with a consistent string of alternative releases, climaxing with the seminal Trompe le Monde, a challenging and rewarding swan song dealing with metaphysics and brine. Like Alice In Chains, the Pixies reunited in the ’00s, despite internal turmoil, and have proven themselves to be capable of writing and performing decent new material.
Shudder To Think was a weird, slightly lesser-known alternative band of the ’90s, but one whose influence only continues to grow.
“It certainly didn’t feel like a victory lap,” frontman Craig Wedren tells BTRtoday. “As we were never commercially popular. For that reason, too, it certainly wasn’t a money gig. We just still loved the songs, the band, and each other, so we thought we’d try a limited run.”
Wedren explains that he never thought of the band as having broken up, but rather that they hit a “collective pause button, indefinitely.”
It seems like new material is now gestating. Wedren recently spent two months writing a “spate of Shudder riffs,” so maybe Shudder To Think’s path will be prove to be as unique as their current body of work (1993’s Pony Express Record is mandatory listening).
Faith No More, who rose to the top of the charts in the ‘90s by managing to excite and push musical boundaries, also managed to escape the break up curse. After a slew of classic albums that included Angel Dust, their undeniable apex, the band parted ways in 1998. Then in 2009, they reformed, bringing their incredible energy to audiences once again and recording an astonishing new album, last year’s haunting and deranged Sol Invictus.
“None of us wanted to do something that didn’t hold up to what we had done in the past,” Faith No More bassist and co-founder Bill Gould tells BTRtoday. “So we worked extra hard to get back up to speed, and it was worth it.”
Gould was encouraged by their initial rehearsals. “A lot of things can happen in 13 years, and I didn’t have any idea where the other guys were coming from. What surprised me is that when we started playing, we were very focused on what we were doing from the musical side.”
Gould does not believe there are rules to successful reunions, but that some bands should and shouldn’t reunite, given that it calls into question their motives and it provokes judgement. In the end, though, it’s a personal choice.
“I know when I told people we were going to do shows, a few eyes rolled. All you can really do is do things for your own reasons, and that way if you succeed or fail, it’s much easier to accept if you’re satisfied with what you put into it.”
Craig Wedren only has one rule: “I personally have no problem with reunion tours, so long as the band is fucking awesome live, which I believe we were.”