Seattle is happening.
The city's status as a hotbed of rock creativity got even hotter this week with the release of promising new albums by grunge-rock kings Soundgarden, new contender Nirvana and the most successful band ever to come out of the Northwest, Heart.
The Soundgarden and Nirvana discs highlight the strength of the local rock scene, showing that the surge of activity that started in the late 1980s is still going strong. Other signs of continuing vitality include the explosion of rock clubs here - there are more live-music nightspots than ever before - and the variety of programming on local rock radio, including the recent launch of progressive-rock station KNDD, which liberally mixes Northwest rock into its playlists. Mainstream stations KISW and KXRX also are good to Seattle bands, with programs devoted to local rock as well as lots of regular airplay.
Interest in Seattle rock should grow even greater with the release next year of Cameron Crowe's movie "Singles," which was filmed here and stars Matt Dillon as the leader of a rock band. The film was inspired by the local rock scene - Crowe, the husband of Nancy Wilson of Heart, is a former rock critic - and prominently features Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and other Seattle bands in the film and soundtrack. Local musicians not only play music in the movie, several also have speaking parts. Soundgarden is also heard in Eric Bogosian's current film, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll."
"Badmotorfinger," Soundgarden's new album, released last Tuesday on A&M Records, shows the band hasn't lost any of its aggressiveness, or softened its rough-edged "grunge" sound. The album seems determined to prove that Soundgarden is still a street-level, people's band, even after the mainstream success of its first A&M disc, "Louder Than Love," released two years ago. One song, "Holy Water," inches toward commercialism, with a radio-ready hook and Hendrix-inspired guitar, but most of the cuts maintain the gritty power and unrelenting drive of metal-alternative acts such as Metallica and Jane's Addiction.
The first single, "Jesus Christ Pose," with its cynical dark humor and slicing guitar solo, reinforces Soundgarden's renegade image. The title itself is a challenge to radio, and probably will keep it from being played on some mainstream stations.
Releasing the tune as the first single is a gesture of defiance, made even more apparent by the fact that it isn't the best tune on the LP. The song that precedes it on the record, "Slaves & Bulldozers," is much better. It's vintage Soundgarden, with industrial-strength music and savage, angry lyrics. Lead singer Chris Cornell spits out a litany of complaints while guitarist Kim Thayil - who's impressive throughout the album - plays a stinging, deconstructed guitar solo.
"Drawing Flies" is another standout, with the best lyric on the disc, full of dark humor and clever turns of phrase. It has a driving ZZ Top-like style, augmented by saxes. As with several other tunes on the record - including "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," "Rusty Cage" and "Face Pollution" - the influence of Led Zeppelin is readily apparent.
The band keeps its sense of politics alive with "New Damage," the final tune, which warns that "the new world order" could end in chaos. "Get out before you drown," Cornell pleads, and the song ends in a swirl of instrumental music.
While "Badmotorfinger" is a strong effort, it doesn't have the emotional depth and musical variety of "Temple of the Dog," the Andrew Wood memorial album from earlier this year, mostly written and sung by Cornell (a former roommate of the late rock singer Wood of Mother Love Bone.) "Badmotorfinger" seems too self-conscious, too determinedly aggressive, while "Temple of the Dog" flows naturally and speaks eloquently, while still maintaining a hard-diving, grungy edge.
Nirvana's "Nevermind," its first release on a major label, DGC Records, gives Soundgarden a run for its money. The disc, also released Tuesday, should put Nirvana right up there near Soundgarden in the firmament of nationally known Seattle bands.
It's a brooding, seething album that mirrors the violence and fear in contemporary society. References to guns are made on several cuts, and there are tunes that deal with madness ("Lithium"), unwanted pregnancy ("Breed") and rape ("Polly").
The first single, the powerful "Smells Like Teen Spirit," challenges the apathy of today's young people, arguing that racism and sexism are rampant and calling for a return of '60s-style awareness and protest.
With an aggressive style reminiscent of punk and thrash metal, Nirvana makes its points with cynicism and mocking humor. "Territorial Pissings" opens with a jab at "Get Together," the hippie anthem, suggesting that its call of "try to love one another right now" is naive and simplistic.
"Polly" may offend some with its references to bondage, although the song ultimately assails sexism. "Lithium" is the most accessible tune, with an almost pop-music overlay, despite its troubling lyric about the extremes of mental illness.
"Nevermind" is not pretty but it's a challenging, powerful effort by a talented band.
While Heart is a proud supporter of the contemporary Seattle scene - the band is building a recording studio here to record itself and have a state-of-the-art place for Seattle bands to record; and Ann and Nancy Wilson have their own hometown band, the Lovemongers - its style is much more mainstream. Nevertheless, it resists the temptation to just cover its hit records on "Rock the House Live!" - which would almost guarantee chart success for the album - in favor of showing its hard-rock side, which comes across best in concert.
Toward the end of the seamless, hour-long live disc, Ann Wilson introduces the band, a moment that epitomizes the thrust of the album. Never has Heart sounded more like a band, rather than just Ann Wilson and backup. Her magnificent voice is prominent, of course - she sounds better than ever - but instead of being way out in front, as on most Heart records, it's blended evenly with the whole band, giving the album a group identity.
Only one new song is included, "You're the Voice," an uplifting call for political activism. It's also the first single. Half of the songs are from last year's "Brigade" album, and the rest from earlier releases. In addition to "You're the Voice," "Call of the Wild," which is more powerful here than the originally recorded version, seems likely to become a hit single.
"Rock the House Live!" isn't a step forward for Heart - it's more of a lateral move - but it faithfully documents the band in concert and shows there's a wealth of talent in Heart in addition to Ann Wilson.