What exactly is grunge? A movement? A Genre? A mindset? None of the above?
Grunge, or as it was sometimes known, The Seattle Sound, was a sub-genre of alternative rock that emerged in the mid-1980’s, in, as you may possibly have guessed, Seattle. It was, initially at least, almost entirely based around the Seatlle label Sub Pop. The origin of the term is generally credited to Mark Arm, when he decided to write an article about his own band, Mr.Epp and the Calculations, for a local zine, Desperate Times, which derogatorily described them as, “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!”. It’s perhaps the negative connotations of the word that led to the likes of Soundgarden (“We never were Grunge, we were just a band from Seattle”) and Pearl Jam (“We are a rock and roll band. We play rock. We play heavy rock. We’re a hard rock band”) to attempt to distance themselves from the label.
Grunge was categorised by a particular guitar tone; a sludgy, swampy sound that relies on murky distortion, and plenty of feedback. The genre fit into a wider ethos of the bands of the time who enjoyed many of the elements of punk and heavy metal, but found the latter too flamboyantly cheesy. Grunge was in many ways an attempt to defuse heavy metal from it’s more flamboyant prog-influenced roots and into something considerably less silly.
Of course, the music was only part of the story. Like almost all successful musical genre’s, Grunge came to represent more than just music. It became an image, an attitude and a way of life. The key concept behind the scenes identity was one of authenticity, the irony of which being that this so called “realness” had nothing to do with actually being yourself. Authenticity was all about caring deeply about not caring at all.The image was based entirely around thrift store purchases, this being Seattle this resulted in flannelled shirts and jeans; but the jeans of course weren’t authentic until you’d worn them through at the knee. Grungers kept their hair long and unwashed, to give the appearance of not caring what you thought. The whole aesthetic came about as antithesis of the flashy, showy excess of the 1980’s; that it became a term used as much in fashion as it is in music, is surely one of musical histories great ironies.
Grunge would eventually become a victim of it’s own success. A genre that thrives on independence and authenticity was always going to struggle to cope once it inevitably found mainstream success. When bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Sonic Youth signed to major labels, grunge became a mainstream interest and a victim of hype, to the extent that Seattle itself became sick of what it created, and how every band from the city was inevitably seen as a Grunge band. The fashion industry started selling ski-hats and plaid shirts at high-end prices. The watered down version of grunge, known as Post-Grunge saw bands like Bush and Foo Fighters polish away the distortion and rough edges of grunge and discover mainstream success with a more radio friendly sound.
As was so often the case, what started as a riotous sub-genre, gradually found success and then lost what made it so special in the first place. In recent years there’s been near constant talk of a grunge revival, which has normally only amounted to a handful of bands, and a few more people in East-London with septum piercings. Grunge’s influence lingers on, but there’s a good chance it’ll never rule the airwaves and influence the youth of today in quite the same way ever again.
Whilst Bully are a four-piece band, they are essentially vehicle for the songwriting of Alicia Bognanno the band’s vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and visionary. She is also Bully’s producer and engineer, having learnt her skills first at college and then during an internship at Electrical Audio a studio owned by a chap called Steve Albini! She’s joined in the band by a trio of talented friends, Stewart Copeland on drums, Clayton Parker on guitar, and Reece Lazarus on bass.
Musically, you can file Bully alongside a host of bands currently reinvigorating the sound of the early 1990’s. The likes of Waxahatchee, Colleen Green and Japandroids all deal masterfully in recollections of that era, but few capture the pure intensity of the early grunge bands to the extent Bully do. Guitars are laced with squealing feedback, drums pound with an incessant rattling intensity and the whole thing is propelled along by rapid racing bass runs. It all sits below Alicia’s potent howl of a vocal; equal parts Brody Dalle intensity and Stephen Malkmus lackadaisy.
Whilst Alicia grew up in Minnesota, Bully are based out of Nashville after she moved to Tennessee to attend Middle Tennessee State University. Nashville is the state-capital of Tennessee and is famous of course for country music. However, it also growing in notoriety for it’s foodie culture, which recently saw the city labelled the 13th snobbiest in the USA. Popular types of local cuisine include hot chicken, hot fish, barbecue, and meat and three, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like a meat and three sides, which doesn’t sound all that snobby we admit! Musically, whilst it’s known for country, thanks to likes of Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and in more recent years Caitlin Rose, there’s also plenty of non-country related music acts who’ve called the city home such as Little Richard, Paramore and Kings of Leon whilst Jack White now calls the city home.
Bully released their self-titled debut EP back in 2013 via TTR Records. A single, Milkman, emerged on Chicken Ranch Records in 2014, before the band signed to the combination of Startime International and Columbia. Their debut album, Feels Like came out on June 23rd.
The perfect summary of Bully’s debut album is presented by it’s opening track. I Remember is a thrilling racket, all rapid distorted guitars and loose pounding drums, layered in rattling cymbal crashes. The voice emerges; a guttural howl that, as has been pointed out by many, does have a distinct hint of Courtney Love about it. The lyrics are a stream of consciousness, or more accurately a stream of memories, “I remember getting too fucked and I remember throwing up in your car.” It’s a look back at a relationship, perhaps gone, perhaps continuing, but treated with a sense of distance that only time gives a person, “I remember hurting you so bad, and I remember the way your sheets smell.” It’s especially crushing, because it’s laced with hope, but a sense that in the end it was extinguished, “I remember that box of letters, I remember that naked photo, I remember thing getting better.” It’s one of the finest attempts to re-imagine gunge’s early days we’ve ever come across.
Elsewhere, the band dip into the vast array of alternative-rock and find much to their liking. Trying has the easy going West-Coast slacker pop vibe of Colleen Green or touring mates Best Coast, Trash has the same slightly off-kilter electric guitar sound Fugazi spent years mastering, whilst Too Tough is a reminder of how great those early Weezer recordings were. Two bands shine out more than any other though the twin influences of The Pixies and Pavement, the intensity of the former often giving way to the laid back rhythms and seeming indifference of the latter.
Plus they do a mean cover of Belle & Sebastian which you can hear below.
The main criticism of Feels Like is that it lacks much in the way of variety; the tracks that have been around since the early EP release such as Brainfreeze and Bully in particular are already starting to sound like off cuts to the fresher, newer material. Brainfreeze is littered with vague childhood memories and little substance, whilst Bully (the track rather than the band) is meant to be a triumphant send off, but actually just sounds like a watered down version of the albums stronger moments. Perhaps the sign of the band rushing out a debut album, rather than a major flaw you can hold against them.
Feels Like is out now on Columbia. Bully are currently doing the rounds on the US festival circuit, they currently have no European dates announced.