A Glaring Lack of Grunge in the Grunge Revival
On cultural regurgitation, alt-rock fusionists, male sexuality and what a whole new crop of bands could learn from the Nineties bands they're supposedly imitating.
By Eli Enis
Right now in punk subculture, there seems to be a heightened celebration of the “grunge revival” that took shape a decade ago. I don’t remember anyone ever referring to the dawn of Run For Cover Records as such, when hardcore, pop-punk and emo bands started dressing like forgotten Sub Pop signees, shooting their music videos on 8mm film, and trading in their drive pedals for Big Muffs, but a grunge revival it was. A subset of an entire decade of Nineties nostalgia that dragged on until a year or two ago when Y2K became the hot new (old) thing.
In the early 2010s, there was suddenly a wealth of bands coming out of the punk underground who decided Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, etc. — and really the whole of Nineties alt-rock, most of which was splattered in grunge’s faded color palette —were suddenly acceptable bands to reference. A retort, implicitly or not, to the prior decade of indie-rock’s ascent (or descent, depending on your taste) toward maximalist sound and flashy style.
A band like Basement (British outliers in an otherwise American scene) took the wailing guitars and stormy swells of Nineties grunge, fused them with the adolescent melodrama of emo, and sang it all with a ragged Britpop hookiness. Think the Promise Ring by way of early Radiohead. It was steeped in what a band like Rival Schools had done a decade earlier, who emerged from the same well of Nineties emo and post-hardcore as bands like Thrice, Thursday and My Chemical Romance, but arrived at a markedly different musical conclusion. Basically if Mellon Collie was a Long Island emo record.
Other bands from Basement’s era were Citizen, Turnover, Pity Sex, Balance and Composure, Adventures, Title Fight and Superheaven, who would each go on to sound wildly different by the mid-2010s, buta ll began the decade making a fairly similar style of scraggly indie-rock. Each band had varying flecks of pop-punk, emo, shoegaze and hardcore in their sound, but they were all united by their love for tidal-wave grunge riffs, especially Superheaven (once known as Daylight), who were the most faithful to grunge’s OGs and are also having the most direct influence on a whole new wave of younger bands who I’ll soon mention.
This year, Superheaven and Pity Sex both reunited for high-profile sets at 2022’s Sound and Fury hardcore fest in Los Angeles. This month, Basement will reissue a 10-year anniversary edition of their 2012 breakout, Colourmeinkindness. Run For Cover are also reissuing Rival Schools’ iconic 2001 debut, United by Fate, signifying an increased reverence for the sound they canary-in-the-coal-mined a decade before it really took off. And of course, the lingering influence of Title Fight, who weren’t playing grunge themselves, but aped the genre’s shabby aesthetics and dreary mood, continues to loom large on today’s crop of hardcore cuspers.
Not only are those bands from about a decade ago still relevant in a way I didn’t quite expect, but throughout the last couple years, and 2022 in particular, there’s also been an unavoidable resurgence of new bands who are basically making the exact same type of music, many of them signed to the same label(s), participating in the same scene and sometimes even featuring the same members. Bands like Narrow Head, Soul Blind, Fleshwater, Gravedweller, Webbed Wing, Bleed and Superbloom could be paired off with any of the aforementioned groups and form a cohesive tour package.
Then there are others like Gleemer who are doing a regurgitation of the “soft grunge” sound that Citizen and Turnover were pegged with — a moody, mid-tempo style of grungey indie with nasally emo vocals and sagging hooks that’re sometimes cut with a dash of post-hardcore bite. Others like Cursetheknife and Leaving Time are putting a shoegazy spin on the sound that still hits with a grunge force, and Downward are one of a zillion new-ish bands who feel separate from the grunge revival because their sound is rooted in slowcore, but still have many of the same emotional and aesthetic qualities, and seem to be liked by the same fans.
It’s also worth noting that the lion’s share of modern shoegaze has been crafted in the image of Nothing, contemporaries of the revivalists who were also playing with grunge and merging it with Catherine Wheel and Swervedriver-sized shoegaze explosions, making them one of the most innovative and lasting bands of this idiom. I think they're absolutely necessary to mention here, but most Nothing clones feel more ‘gaze than grunge, so I don’t have a bone to pick with them at this moment.
When it comes to these early 2020s grunge revival revivalists, I feel mildly negative about the worst bands. At best, I really like what they're doing. For most of them, I feel relatively neutral about the music, but annoyed (and therefore intrigued, enough to write this essay) about the loud praise they're receiving in the scene. I’m perplexed by the eyebrow-raising hype they're getting for doing not just virtual ripoffs of what bands like Basement and Superheaven did a decade or less ago, but paltry and inessential versions of what the grunge pioneers initially crafted. It’s one thing to play Negative Approach style hardcore in 2022 and not quite nail the intangible magic of the source material but still deliver a rippin’ and worthwhile product. I’d wager 90% of active rock bands (and that's being generous) are blatantly regurgitating a sound that's already been done.
But when it comes to these grunge revival bands, to me, it feels like they're being presented as faithful torch-bearers of Smashing Pumpkins or Soundgarden, when in reality they're missing a few crucial artistic components that made those first-wave innovators so special. Therefore, no matter how many RIYL’s they can rack up to the most popular artists in grunge history, their music never actually comes close to meeting the NIneties bands at their own game. And I find this strange and irksome because, as I mentioned, so many hardcore bands are able to directly ape specific sounds and bands and make them sound vital again. Every other year, Pitchfork and their ilk crown some new derivative post-punk band the best new thing since the Fall, and sometimes, the band does rip.
Why can’t a grunge band in 2022 deliver even 85% of the feeling I get from cranking “Them Bones,” “Jesus Christ Pose” or “Zero”?
In the mainstream zeitgeist of rock radio and sports bar Touchtunes, grunge never really went away, it just got woven into the greater classic rock fabric. The titans of the genre, many of them forever relegated to history due to their deceased frontmen, have come to represent a fabled period of cultural excellence that no one under the age of 30 has ever, and will ever, experience in real-time, and can therefore be shaped into whatever idealistic form a 20-year-old with a Jazzmaster wants to make it.
The very word “grunge” brings to mind an era when a band of rock musicians could be confident, clamorous and musically subversive while also massively successful. A time before the internet, before the music industry nearly collapsed only to re-emerge as an even more oligarchical, soulless, impenetrable behemoth than it was before. A time that's taken on a utopian significance for young guitar-slingers when, like the very founders of grunge, they're hungry to move beyond the simple assault of hardcore punk and make something more emotionally complex, easier to sing along to, but no less instrumentally brash and gutsy.
To many musicians in my age group, grunge is a sort of platonic ideal for how a record should sound — red-hot coal levels of analog warmth, heaps of fuzz-drunk power chords, hoarse vocals delivered emphatically but with a twinge of depleted serotonin, and a tracklist that's way too fucking long. It’s the music we came up hearing on rock radio (along with its shittier but arguably more sustainable offspring, post-grunge, which has produced decades of commercial domination and a comparative lack of deceased frontmen) and is therefore embedded in our musical DNA in the same way the Stones and Who were for our parents. It’s music that's comfortable for us, which is maybe why so many twenty-something musicians feel like it’s their destiny to start making it themselves.
Here’s the thing about the Soul Blinds, the Narrow Heads — hell, even the Superheavens and Basements: none of these bands have vocalists who sound anything like Layne Staley, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan or any of the other vocalists carved into grunge’s Mount Rushmore. None of these new bands have singers who come close to the stinging melancholy of Staley’s mighty wail, the sexual fervor of Cornell’s belt, the wounded charisma of Cobain, the affable swagger of Eddie Vedder, the colorful huskiness of Scott Weiland, the dangerous shrieks of Mark Arm, the seen-some-shit croak of Mark Lanegan, the playful bite of Courtney Love, the commanding howl of Kim Deal, the switchblade snarl of Donita Sparks, the fuming hollers of Kat Bjelland, and whatever the fuck possessed Corgan, who wrote some of the most stunning hooks in all of Nineties alt-rock and, despite his awkwardly nasal inflection, honed an acrobatic vocal range that swung majestically from ecstatic angel coos to body-shocking screams.
It’s the vocals, man. And not just the actual tone and timbre of the voice, but the aura required of a compelling frontperson. Somewhere along the way, the idea of grunge got watered down to just the guitar tones, The Look, and a voice devoid of all character other than mopey vocal patterns and monotonous grit, speckled predictably like a chip-sealed cul de sac. Of course, this very problem became a plague in the first half of the Nineties when the very phrase "buzz-bin band" began to evoke flannel-clad NPC's who got scooped up in the grunge feeding frenzy but never amounted to anything, because they simply didn't possess the "it" factor (either a star-power frontperson or halfway decent songs) to stand out.
When emo bands started revving the grunge engine a decade back, they found the cheat code to making kick-ass grunge without having vocal chops or magnetic personalities, because craggy, pre-21st century emo lends itself to deflated croons and numb vocal affects; music that practically stands in opposition to the unbuttoned Rawk swagger of grunge’s freshman class. Additionally, many of these artists also pulled their interpretation of grunge out of a melting pot of slowcore, shoegaze, post-hardcore and Nineties indie-rock — reference points that the grunge pioneers themselves didn’t have, which gave the early 2010s iteration a different configuration of sounds.
In the case of a band like Bleed (who feature members of Narrow Head), alt-metal even gets mixed in with the batter. The Texas group, like many of their peers, are obvious Deftones diehards who play a form of grunge that falls closer to what bands like Hum and Failure were doing than any of the Seattle bands. Unfortunately, no one who’s ever claimed a Deftones influence have been willing to take the plunge and rival the venomous sexuality of Chino Moreno, who truly brings it as a vocalist in a way that elevates that band from good to superb. Without his bird-of-prey screeches and sensuous, sweaty coos — or his bandmates’ studious understanding of shoegaze as more than just a monochromatically loud genre, but one that hinges on muted softs and ear-bleeding crescendos — I don’t think they would’ve achieved a level of mastery that's caused them to influence so many while remaining in an untouchable league of their own.
The concept of fusing grunge with emo, alt-metal, slowcore, post-hardcore, etc. inspires a number of intriguing possibilities, but so far I haven’t heard a young band — even the ones I like quite a bit — capitalize on that potential and find a singer who actually sounds like they want to be holding a microphone. In fairness, I think grunge is actually an underratedly challenging genre for vocalists to excel at. They have to be able to engage in friendly competition with the guitars, maintaining a delicate balance of grittiness, rage, vulnerability and tunefulness, because at the end of the day this music is supposed to be catchy. I think a misconception among many grunge musicians of my age group is that it’s all about the fuzz boxes and sky-high amp stacks. There’s a disproportionate amount of energy put into crafting the right tones and searching for the proper volume, and the vocals end up feeling like an afterthought, without half the personality or charisma needed to actually match the obvious influences.
I keep nebulously referring to traits like “charisma” and “personality” without specifically identifying what I mean here, so I’ll make it very clear: male sexuality. For as tortured and musically mangled as the grunge Olympians were, most of them were also kinda damn sexy, and I don’t think any of the bands from the last decade achieve that level of sexiness, nor are they trying to. Oh, but they should. I think it’s one of the not-so-secret ingredients that's created a whole canyon of distance between the bands in the early Nineties and the bands of the modern day, even if the contemporary bands are able to dial in Kim Thayil’s exact pedalboard and smoke enough cigs to sound like Lanegan’s cousin.
Have you seen the video of Stone Temple Pilots performing a song called “Sex Type Thing” on late-night TV while Weiland cross-dressed in a bright dress and a tiara? Have you heard what Cornell sang about (see: “Big Dumb Sex”) and how he looked when he sang it (shirtless)? Cobain was a dreamboat, so it came natural to him, but Staley was a weird lookin’ goblin of a man, and he totally owned it and performed with a vigor that's been completely absent from this realm of underground rock music for at least the last decade. There’s a reason grunge was able to catapult from basements to arenas, and it wasn’t that these guys were rubbing shoulders with Buzz Osborne and Phil Anselmo. It’s that their singers performed the way rock musicians used to perform, which is a way that no man in the subjects of this essay’s general orbit have (to my knowledge) performed.
I think there’re a lot of reasons for this. I think some of that is because men in punk and rock subculture are afraid to act cringe. It’s hard to imagine someone dressing like this at a Tigers Jaw show and not looking like a guy who stumbled into the wrong venue. Also, hardcore kids — and all of the grunge revivalists I’ve mentioned either are, were, or are embedded in a culture with hardcore kids — are incredibly judgemental and finicky about what’s acceptable stage behavior, and thrusting the mic stand while hollering lines like, “I'm the beast and you're the master,” would be considered a faux pas for as long as I’ve been involved in this type of music.
I think another contributing factor could be the more mainstreamed criticisms of the way men have always, and continue to, abuse women sexually. Whether they themselves are sexual predators or not, I think most men in punk subculture have become more self-aware about how they publicly perform sexuality, and are perhaps reticent of behaving in a way that's offensive or hypersexual. I think that's valid to a point, but there’s a way for men to respectfully own their sexuality without crossing barriers of consent or flaunting their masculinity in a way that's distastefully alpha or actually harmful.
It’s also worth noting that the artists I’m repeatedly comparing all these new bands to had a generational star power that's very hard to come by. Whatever Cobain, Staley and Cornell had was a gift, not a skill they picked up. Sadly, their wafting sexual allure was also wrapped up in a whole lot of unfortunate curses, which were gobbled up by a vulturous media that romanticized their serious drug addictions and mental health crises, stoking the flames that ultimately burned up a sobering number of grunge’s most iconic vocalists.
Whatever the reason for the grunge revival’s chaste attitude may be, none of the men in these bands (that I’ve seen or heard, at least) are willing to really commit to the inherently campy bit that is being a grunge frontperson. This is music that spawned from a fascination with the hypersexual cock-rock of the 1970s. The building blocks of grunge are punk bands interpreting fucking Aerosmith, and while the genre and its culture have evolved so much over the last 30 years that the Steven Tylers of the world aren’t having any iota of direct influence on this new crop of music, I do think a twinge of rock ‘n’ roll provocation would do it some good.
I know that makes me sound like an edgelord boomer who’s asking for rock to become ~dangerous~ again like the good ‘ole days when statutory rape was as common as asking for beer on the tour rider. To clarify for the cynics, I’m not asking for those aspects of rock’s yesteryear to make a comeback, or any of the other heinous social mores that made rock’s “golden decades” so twisted and ugly, most of which continues on today, if at a paranoid whisper instead of an assured scream.
I really just want to see a band sing and dance and freak the fuck out and make a statement with their body and their voice the way all of the iconic grunge bands did. Of course, that vibe is socially incongruent with a lot of modern punk subculture, which varies wildly (in many ways positively, but in some ways negatively) from the chaos of 80s punk, whose bands were driven by fucking the musical vanguard into new shapes, not replicating the sound, look, and feel of something that's already been done, which is what any contemporary grunge band, consciously or not, is effectively doing.
These nitpicks might seem like I’m trying to convince bands that they should tweak the knobs here and there in order to create exact imitations of the music that came before them. That's not what I’m personally interested in hearing, because I have those old bands to go to for that sound if I so choose. But it’s obviously what many of these bands are putting out there, or how their music is at least resonating with me and the numerous other people I’ve spoken to about this wave. Their sound is built on replication, it’s music whose only purpose is to evoke something that already exists.
I’m not interested in listening to a reference point. I want to hear something that makes me think of something I already like, but also makes me concede, ”it’s doing something a little different, though.” That’s what made Basement and Pity Sex and Turnover and Citizen and Nothing and Drug Church for that matter feel fresh and novel in the 2010s. That's why their music still gets talked about today, and that's why a whole new crop of young bands are understandably interested in channeling them into their own music.
From what I can tell, many of these up-and-comers are really well-liked right now and will undoubtedly become more popular and more established in the next couple years. Maybe their songwriting and reference points will mature, and after playing a couple hundred more shows, the performances will also become more electrifying. I’m sure most of these bands are already pretty fun to see, because loud guitar music is typically pretty fun to see if it’s done right.
But will any of them ever do what to grunge what Turnstile are currently doing to hardcore? Harness the most essential elements of the genre’s foundation, freshen the sound up in a modern way, and present it with an intoxicating energy that stops people — jaded old-heads and fresh faces alike — in their tracks and forces them to reconsider the tired admission that rock is dead. I hope so. But right now, I don’t see it. Prove me wrong.
If you liked this essay, you’ll probably like everything Endless Scroll does. Buy our zines here and/or subscribe to our podcast’s Patreon here.