The Barcelona Olympics. Bill Clinton running for President. The looming Gulf War. The LA Riots. Miley’s dad with his mullet and his achy breaky heart. 1992 had it all.
It might be hard to believe for those too young to remember, but rock music was a big deal thirty years ago. Thanks to the explosion of the Grunge scene in 1991, “alternative music” as it was badged became a hot commodity with record labels desperately searching American cities for the “next Nirvana”.
Nirvana themselves started the year by hitting number 1 on the Billboard album charts, touring Australia for the first Big Day Out, and had a string of hit singles, even when Kurt married Courtney. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden weren’t far behind and of course Metallica and Guns ‘n Roses took their behemoth albums on the road, including a co-tour that became noted for James Hetfield going up in flames, and Axl Rose topping that by leaving the stage early and the Montreal crowd rioting in response. Red Hot Chili Peppers enjoyed the success of 91’s BloodSugarSexMagic until guitarist John Frusciante abruptly quit (for the first time) in May ‘92.
Frusciante wasn’t the only one quitting though. Vince Neil was fired from Motley Crue, Dio would leave Black Sabbath (again) and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest would soon be looking for new vocalists in 1993. It was symbolic of the changing of the guard – the big arena bands of the late 80s were giving way to the new sound and the bands that played them. Ozzy Osbourne actually completed his No More Tours, fully intending to retire from the live scene (before obviously changing his mind until No More Tours 2 in 2018).
Perhaps the clearest sign of the alternative scene’s ascendancy was the release of two films that depicted the sub-culture: Cameron Crowe’s Singles and Wayne’s World, giving Mike Myers and Dana Carvey a feature film based on their Saturday Night Live characters. Whilst very different from each other, Crowe’s film is a romantic comedy set in Seattle, whereas Wayne’s World is a straight out comedy, both feature rocking soundtracks and are respectful of the music scene they depict. Crowe added authenticity by having Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and members of Pearl Jam, play themselves in the film. The soundtrack is one of the early 90s most essential compilations, with new music from the band’s mentioned plus the Smashing Pumpkins and an astonishing Chris Cornell solo work called ‘Seasons’.
Wayne’s World has a legendary cameo from Alice Cooper and Tia Carrere rocking the mic on covers of ‘Ballroom Blitz’ and Hendrix’s ‘Fire’, but it was the headbanging scene that got the most attention, and helped Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to hit number 1 on the UK Single charts again. The film’s plot is critical of the increasing commercialisation of the independent scene, something that would cause the likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Veddar to become disenchanted over the coming years.
But in 1992 commercial considerations hadn’t swamped the market yet, and some seriously gutsy bands were able to reach a wider audience than they would have by being stuck on independent labels and playing in clubs. For the bands below, 1992 was either a breakout year or a major step to shaping the way rock and alternative music was played for the next decade and into the new millennium.
Alice in Chains – Dirt and Stone Temple Pilots – Core
Both were released on September 29, 1992 and despite being overshadowed somewhat by the 1991 releases, each have carved out their place in music history, only for both to share a similar tragedy in the years since. Dirt is the seminal Alice in Chains album with five mega singles: ‘Would?’, ‘Them Bones’, ‘Angry Chair’, ‘Rooster’, and ‘Down in a Hole’. It’s heavy musically, with the trademark Layne Staley/Jerry Cantrell vocal harmonies giving them a different vibe to other bands of the time. There is an emotional weight to songs like ‘Would?’ and ‘Rooster’ too, that continues to resonate thirty years later. Even now, Dirt feels like an album that is meant to be played straight through – riffs and lyrics build on each other song after song with themes running across tracks.
Core, on the other hand, was considered derivative of the scene upon release but has gone on to be recognised as a great album. Like Dirt, it explores similar themes in each song but has a hard rock edge that is almost glam at times, particularly on suggestive tracks like ‘Sex Type Thing’ and ‘Wicked Garden’. It’s far darker than the likes of Poison or Ratt though. ‘Plush’ would become one of the major ballads of the era, getting radio play even today. Sadly both bands would see their careers adversely affected by their singer’s drug addictions, barely being able to tour by the end of the decade. Layne’s body was found several days after he died alone in 2002. STP frontman Scott Weiland would be kicked out of the band several times, and was on a solo tour when he was found dead on his tour bus in 2015. Both bands have managed to regroup though, with AIC in particular releasing a series of acclaimed albums with William Duval on vocals.
BodyCount and Rage Against the Machine release self titled debut albums
For those that grew up in the early 90s, BodyCount and Rage Against the Machine are rap-metal. Far less silly than the 80s attempts (Beastie Boys and Anthrax) and less absurd than some of the Nu Metal try-hards (CrazyTown), both BodyCount and RATM capture the experience of minorities – something lacking from the white male rock bands dominating the charts. They were also singularly focused on social and political issues of the day. BodyCount’s debut initially included the single ‘Cop Killer’, which as the title suggests, is about fighting back against police brutality. In the aftermath of the LA Riots (triggered by police being acquitted of killing Rodney King) the song was removed from the album at frontman Ice-T’s request so the focus could return to their hard hitting music. Ice gave them credibility in the hip hop world, though he barely rapped on songs, while Ernie C layed down thick metal riffs on ‘There Goes the Neighbourhood’ and ‘KKK Bitch’.
RATM would break out with their ode to white-on-black brutality – the equally confrontationally named ‘Killing in the Name’. The verse lyrics are more subtle than BodyCount, until the legendary closing refrain – “FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!” Musically the wizardry of guitarist Tom Morello and the tight rhythm section of Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk would draw on bands as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy (mimicking record scratching) and The Clash. In 1992 the rock world needed bands like BC and Rage to shine a light on racism and injustice, making sure they rocked as hard as they could to deliver the message. You can clearly see their continued impact in bands with socially conscious lyrics, such as Fever333, System of a Down, Rise Against and Anti-Flag.
Faith No More – Angel Dust
Most alternative bands in ‘92 were the latest rendition of classic three/four/five piece rock bands. Faith No More was something else, thanks largely to the presence of keyboardist Roddy Bottum. After breaking out with their rap fused single ‘Epic’ and album The Real Thing, they were pretty determined not to just repeat themselves with Angel Dust. With singer Mike Patton now fully onboard to contribute to songwriting, things got very weird, very quickly. Critics had no idea what to do with them as the band explored genres ranging from avant garde metal (‘Malpractice’) to cheerleading chants (‘Be Aggressive’) to funk-infused advertising parody (‘Land of Sunshine’). I mean what the hell genre is ‘Caffeine’?
There were plenty of bonkers bands around in the early 90s (Ween and Butthole Surfers come to mind) but FNM managed to package it up and have commercial hits like ‘Midlife Crisis’, a metal-hip hop-prog song with a chorus referencing menstruation. The other single was ‘A Small Victory’, which is … well just check it out below OK? The album would end with an accordion led cover of ‘Theme from Midnight Cowboy’ and later include a cover of the Commodores’ RnB ballad ‘Easy’. Along with RATM they are often blamed for inspiring Nu Metal, and you can definitely hear it in some of the better bands like KoRn and System of a Down. Disturbed actually covered ‘Midlife Crisis’ as a B-side while bands like Machine Head have dropped in the odd tribute during gigs. By the end of the 90s Faith No More had gone through a few guitarists and gone their separate ways, only to reunite for the Second Coming tour in 2012 and a killer new album in 2015.
Kyuss – Blues for the Red Sun
For a while, Kyuss were the best kept secret in rock. Building a cult following after their debut album, their particular brand of ‘desert rock’, a doom drenched, bass heavy version of Stoner Metal, would see them become scene leaders with Blues for the Red Sun. Joshua Homme’s decision to plug his guitar into a bass amp would have major implications for heavy distortion, leading the way for bands like Monster Magnet, and inspire bands to down tune their guitars to lower levels (the way to avoid this? 7 string guitars!) It’s incredibly groovy, honing the 70s sound of Hawkwind and Black Sabbath, but also similar to the song structures used by grunge bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Dave Grohl was a fan and so were Metallica, who brought them as support for their Australian tour in 1993. Kyuss would run its course by 1995 with a final album and tour. Homme would reunite soon after with bassist Nick Olivari and final Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez for a project they dubbed Queens of the Stone Age. The rest is history.
Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power
After releasing several glam albums in the 1980s, Pantera’s major label debut Cowboys From Hell saw them emerge as players in the metal genre. But it was Vulgar Display… that saw them move up the bill. Jam packed with heavy songs that move between groove, thrash and heavy power ballads, the Texas based four piece would ensure that metal had a new champion, even as Metallica and Megadeth simplified their sound. One of the few bands to arguably get heavier as their career progressed through the mainstream, Pantera dropped all aspects of their glam days (including Phil Anselmo’s falsetto) and went hard with the anthems: ‘Mouth for War’, ‘A New Level’ and ‘Walk’ are as good an opening trio on any metal album. And then they drop the thrasher ‘Fucking Hostile’ and dark ballad ‘This Love’ before the second side is wall to wall heavy stuff: ‘Rise’, ‘By Demons Be Driven’. Drummer Vinnie Paul’s ability to follow his brother Dimebag’s riffs with his feet was groundbreaking for the time, and the mix from Terry Date is perfect for ensuring everything is audible but crunchy. They could back it up on stage too – becoming one of the most furiocious live bands to take the stage until their split in 2003. There isn’t a metal band working today that isn’t indebted to the influence Vulgar … had on the next generation of bands and those that follow.
Pretty much everyone has jammed the riff to ‘Walk’ at some point or another, with Avenged Sevenfold releasing the most notable cover version. The passing of Dimebag in 2004 and then Vinnie Paul in 2018 means we will never see Pantera again, but Phil has taken to performing the classics in recent years with his solo project The Illegals.
Ministry – ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ (AKA Psalm 69) and Nine Inch Nails – Broken
After bubbling away in clubs and on tours, industrial metal broke out in 1992. Ministry had a rock radio hit with ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’, an industrial rockabilly track with insane vocals by Gibbs Haynes (Butthole Surfers). ‘Just One Fix’ and ‘NWO’ were more standard industrialist metal singles that built on the Ministry formula to date, particularly previous album The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste. Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker would take Ministry on the second annual Lollapalooza tour, hitching their wagon to the booming alternative scene.
Trent Reznor, a friend and collaborator with Jourgensen, was fed up with his record company’s interference with the promotion of Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine. As a result Broken was a 6 track EP recorded in secret (with 2 additional secret tracks) and unleashed on the world. This was NIN with crunching guitars and metal beats, embracing their anger rather than the loathing present on their debut. Whilst he moved straight into recording the seminal full album The Downward Spiral, Broken helped NIN break through. Lead track ‘Wish’ nabbed the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance, beating out Ministry’s ‘NWO’ and tracks by Soundgarden, Helmet and Megadeth. Until his later film score success, Reznor joked that his grave stone would read: “REZNOR: Died. Said ‘fist fuck’ and won a Grammy.”
Fear Factory – Soul of a New Machine
It’s fair to say that compared to others mentioned above, Fear Factory’s debut release (their recorded debut would remain unreleased until 2003) didn’t have a commercial impact. There were no singles, but as label mates of bands like Type O Negative and Sepultura, they toured enough to get noticed. Influenced by bands like Godflesh and Nirvana (listen to the choruses in ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Martyr’), Fear Factory pioneered the syncopated guitar/drums and were the first notable band to use clean/unclean singing. Yes, without Soul of a New Machine you can forget New Wave of American Heavy Metal and metalcore. The album is unrefined and brutally heavy but contains all the signs of what was to come on Demanufacture in 1995.
Check out the playlist below with 20 of the best heavy tracks from 30 years ago! Let me know if anything ws missed.
Words: KJ Draven (@KJDraven)
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