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The six weeks between August 12 and September 24, 1991 might just be the greatest in the history of heavy music. All-time classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion duo and Metallica’s Black Album all dropped during that heady summer spell, and still feel as important now as they did back then. Looking back at the year’s news stories, however, confirms that it was a whole generation ago.
The first Gulf War was arguably the biggest headline-grabber of an indisputable annus miserabilis, with the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait triggering the Operation Desert Storm counteroffensive by UN and U.S. troops, which started in earnest in January 1991. By the end of February, American President George H. W. Bush declared a ceasefire and the end of the conflict.
The beginning of the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in September – following a vote by the Congress Of People’s Deputies – was the year’s other major world event, with countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Estonia all declaring independence.
Elsewhere, a referendum in South Africa saw the abolition of its old apartheid laws and the creation of a new constitution, specifically for the support of the Rainbow Nation’s modern, multicultural society.
In pop culture, legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury issued a public statement confirming that he had been stricken with the AIDS virus on November 23, and passed away from complications the following day.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and The Silence Of The Lambs ruled the box office. Bottom, Home Improvement, Dinosaurs and The Ren & Stimpy Show were amongst the biggest TV debuts. And, even beyond that aforementioned six-week spell, there was a hell of a batch of heavy music as emergent alt. and grunge revolutionaries vied with the survivors of the 1980s metal scene for fans’ hearts and minds.
Here, we look back on 20 of the most noteworthy releases from 1991…
Alice In Chains – Facelift
Although they ended up playing fourth fiddle, somewhat, to the earth-quaking achievements of Seattle brethren Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Alice In Chains’ debut LP was the first of the acknowledged grunge movement to be certified Gold, on September 11, 1991. Already darker and moodier than anything being offered by their contemporaries, songs like Sea Of Sorrow, We Die Young and Man In The Box established the awesome chemistry between guitarist Jerry Cantrell and vocalist Layne Staley – eventually going on to double-Platinum success.
Bolt Thrower – War Master
The emergent death metal genre had been dominated thus far by outfits from Florida and Scandinavia, but Bolt Thrower ensured that the Brit-metal tradition was amply represented. The Coventry crushers had already proved their credentials with 1989’s staggeringly heavy Realm Of Chaos, but War Master tweaked the formula to thrilling effect: better produced, more atmospheric, more precise than what had come before. Tracks like What Dwells Within, Rebirth Of Humanity and Cenotaph still pack bowel-loosening heaviosity.
Cathedral – Forest Of Equilibrium
In 1991, Lee Dorrian was still best known as the ex-frontman of Brummie grindcore pioneers Napalm Death. Forest Of Equilibrium – the debut LP from his doom outfit Cathedral, formed in 1989 – put paid to that. Joining up with Gaz Jennings, previously of tongue-in-cheek thrash maniacs Acid Reign, the pair channelled 20 years of old-school influence through their own, more avant-garde creativity, with songs like Commiserating The Celebration and Soul Sacrifice seething with a dark, extremist edge.
Death – Human
The turn of the 1990s were a period of transition for Chuck Schuldiner’s aptly-named death metal progenitors, with the shift from rough-edged sonic violence to more cutting precision ramped up on 1990’s Spiritual Healing. Arriving just 20 months later, fourth LP Human marked another quantum leap, as the arrival of Cynic duo Paul Masvidal (guitar) and Sean Reinert (drums) – alongside bassist Steve DiGiorgio – rounded out one of the greatest line-ups in the subgenre’s history.
Entombed – Clandestine
Falling between awesome 1990 debut Left Hand Path and 1993’s seminal Wolverine Blues, the second album from Stockholm savages Entombed has been somewhat overlooked across the last three decades. Unfairly so, for Clandestine is one of the greatest death metal albums of all time in its own right. Perfecting the visceral buzzsaw sound with which they burst onto the scene, and building it into catchier, more grandiose structures, songs like Sinners Bleed and Evilyn cracked necks around the globe.
Green Day – Kerplunk!
The previous year’s 39/Smooth might’ve been Green Day’s de facto debut, but it was with Kerplunk! that the Berkeley punk rockers really started rolling. Seeing the arrival of drummer Tré Cool solidify a core line-up that has endured ever since, and the crackling chemistry on tracks like Who Wrote Holden Caulfield? and Christie Road, it was clear to anyone watching that these lads were set for bigger things. Hell, in heart-wrought opener 2000 Light Years Away they even showcased the sentimentality that would characterise some of their most massive hits decades down the line.
Guns N' Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II
After the most raucously received debut LP in the history of hard rock, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion records became its most fervently anticipated second (and third). If 1989 mini-album Lies was a bite-size nugget that did little to sate fans’ hunger, this was an overblown banquet with everything they could stomach and more. From the unchained hard rock of You Could Be Mine and Pretty Tied Up, to the OTT semi-absurdity of epics like November Rain and Civil War, it was a showcase of the best and worst of GN’R, foreshadowing that internal tumult coming down the line.
Hole – Pretty On The Inside
Although they would progress onto more commercial sounds at the other end of the decade, the debut album from Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson’s Hole was built on the grit and ugliness of life on the LA punk scene. Produced by Courtney’s noise-rock hero Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, songs like Teenage Whore and Garbage Man managed to compete with the crop of rock revolutionaries coming out of Seattle, while a cover of Joni Mitchell’s Clouds showcased a rough seductiveness that reportedly caught the attention of pop goddess Madonna herself.
Kyuss – Wretch
Wretch mightn’t exactly have made waves on release, but the Kyuss debut’s significance has been amplified over the years as the first outing for future stoner rock legends John Garcia (vocals), Brant Bjork (drums), Nick Oliveri (bass) and Josh Homme (guitar). This – along with Kyuss’ excellent other three albums – deserves to be regarded as far more than a footnote in bigger bands’ stories, however, with tracks like Son Of A Bitch and The Law packing a muscularity and trippiness that demands to be experienced on its own desert-rock terms.
Metallica – Metallica
Metallica’s self-titled Black Album can be viewed in one of two ways. Cynics call it the initial departure from the raw genius of their 1980s output: a commercially viable first step to their ultimate “selling out”. Realists see it as the point they took over the world: the entrance for a legion of new fans into the “Metallica famileh”, and a defiant show of strength from The Four Horsemen as the emergent grunge generation consigned so many of their contemporaries to the history books. Thirty years on, songs like Sad But True, The Unforgiven, Wherever I May Roam and Nothing Else Matters speak for themselves.
Morbid Angel – Blessed Are The Sick
Fuck knows what they were putting in the Floridian (swamp)water at the start of the 1990s, but much of the death metal output from the southeastern state would go on to define the genre for decades. Alongside Obituary, Deicide, Atheist and the aforementioned Death, Tampa brutalists Morbid Angel soaked up the sun and spat out pure sonic fire. Picking up where 1989’s seminal Altars Of Madness left off, Blessed Are The Sick saw David Vincent, Trey Azagoth and co. refining things slightly: trading unhinged chaos for more deliberate, sadistic control.
Nirvana – Nevermind
There’s not much more to be said about Nirvana’s second album at this point. Having piqued listeners’ interest with the caustic imagery and fuzzed-up hooks of 1989’s Bleach, frontman Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic brought aboard ex-Scream drummer Dave Grohl and dropped a collection of songs that would change the face of music forever. From the underwater-baby-chasing-dollar-bill artwork, to world-beating lead single Smells Like Teen Spirit, to moody deep cuts like Something In The Way (which still crop up in TV ads and movie trailers three decades down the line), absolutely everything in this loaded package has become utterly iconic.
Ozzy Osbourne – No More Tears
Like Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne could’ve been forced into obscurity by the rising alt.rock tide, but instead responded with an album custom-tooled for the times, and one of the finest and most important of his rollercoaster career. With the indomitable Double‑O in the shape of his life and artistic collaborators like ex-Alice In Chains bassist Mike Inez and Motörhead’s Lemmy offering up gems as colourful as the throbbing title-track and southern-tinged singalong Mama, I’m Coming Home, No More Tears went on to quadruple-Platinum success as Ozzy’s best-selling solo album to date.
Pearl Jam – Ten
With a title inspired by the jersey number of NBA star Mookie Baylock, after whom the band were originally named, and released one month before Nirvana’s Nevermind (though taking a little longer to gain traction), the debut LP from Pearl Jam would prove pivotal in shaping the grunge revolution. Eddie Vedder and the boys have had a longer, more fruitful career than any of their contemporaries over the three decades since, but there is a magic to songs like Even Flow, Alive, Jeremy and Black – many of them written within weeks of the band first coming together – that ensures Ten stands alone.
Primus – Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
It’s testament to the time that a band as wilfully silly and stridently progressive as Californian alt.metallers Primus could get a deal on Interscope Records and proceed to title their major label debut Sailing The Seas Of Cheese. Underpinning their proggy flourishes and goofy gags with unimpeachable levels of instrumental virtuosity, tracks as funkily inspired and downright unhinged as Jerry Was A Race Car Driver and Tommy The Cat have defiantly stood the test of time.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
With their peak globe-straddling prominence around the turn of the millennium, it can be easy to forget that Red Hot Chili Peppers have been on the go since 1983. Already four records in, Rick Rubin-produced fifth effort Blood Sugar Sex Magik was their first real breakthrough, as funky, soulful classics like Under The Bridge, Suck My Kiss and Give It Away ingrained themselves on a whole generation of fans – and paved the way for that legendary 1993 cameo on The Simpsons.
Sepultura – Arise
With alt.rock undeniably ruling the roost, Brazilian hard-nuts Sepultura embraced their position as generals in the metal resistance. 1989’s Beneath The Remains was the hard-won breakthrough, so Arise saw them more freely flexing their creativity, honing their one-of-a-kind hybrid groove/thrash/death sound on songs as unapologetically ferocious as Dead Embryonic Cells, Desperate Cry and Altered State. A resounding invitation to fuck shit up.
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish
Up against the plaid-shirted cool of grunge, Smashing Pumpkins became the weirdo alternative face of alt.rock in the early ’90s. Bringing together guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and (a still long-haired) Billy Corgan, debut LP Gish combined gothic and post-punk ’80s influences like The Cure and New Order, nods to contemporary rock acts like Jane’s Addiction and the gritty feel of that uber-influential Sub Pop sound. 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s Mellon Collie… would dwarf its sound and appeal, but Gish will forever be the first shot fired by a truly special band.
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
One of the trailblazers of grunge, Soundgarden were already onto their third LP by 1991, but it seemingly took the explosion of talent out of their native Seattle to spur them on to reach their full potential. With the arrival of bassist Ben Shepherd – credited by guitarist Kim Thayil for tightening the band’s songwriting – singles like Outshined, Rusty Cage and the wilfully provocative/unquestionably brilliant Jesus Christ Pose led to them becoming household names. A support slot on Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion tour, and double-Platinum sales, duly followed.
Temple Of The Dog – Temple Of The Dog
Recorded as a heartfelt tribute to Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose the year before, Temple Of The Dog’s sole, self-titled LP united a Seattle grunge supergroup – Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell joining Pearl Jam men Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament, Matt Cameron, with Eddie Vedder – for a record that remains one of a kind. Full of emotion for their lost friend, tracks like Hunger Strike and Say Hello 2 Heaven paved the way for the raw feeling of Ten and Badmotorfinger later in the autumn.
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