Sadly, the world seems poised to relegate Seattle’s enduring cultural contributions to Starbuck’s coffee and its musical output from 1990-1993, when the city’s underground scene gave birth to a dour, flannel-swaddled malcontent known as the grunge movement. The Emerald City has yielded some of music’s most inspired and transformational artists, united in their ambition to burn down splintery rock archetypes and to create music of the fierce and mind-blowing variety. Here are ten of Seattle’s most important heavy music purveyors.
Let’s dispense with this myth once and for all – AIC were never a grunge band. While many wrote off AIC as latecomers to the grunge party, in fact, the heavy-as-fuck quartet bore little in common with grunge pioneers like Green River and Mudhoney, instead conjuring a wholly unique amalgam of melodic doom, proto-metal and classic rock. Behind Layne Staley’s soul-scraping howl and Jerry Cantrell’s concussive, downtuned riffs, AIC created an instantly-recognisable sound that remains vital today.
In the mid-80s, Metal Church stormed onto the pitch with a trio of thrash-inspired campaigns that delivered fist pumping riffs and wall-trembling choruses, peaking with 1989’s Blessing In Disguise (produced by one of metal’s legendary knob-twisters, Terry Date). Surviving numerous lineup changes, including the death of vocalist David Wayne, Metal Church continue to churn out chest-bruising anthems, with this year’s XI showcasing the band’s finest material in over two decades.
These Grammy-nominated metallers have moved over 30 million units since rising up in the 80s as a thinking man’s counterpoint to the dopey, knuckle dragging party metal of the Sunset Strip. Beyond the acrimonious split between vocalist Geoff Tate and the band, Queensrÿche would evolve from churning out NWOBHM-influenced belters to a more compositionally-expansive vision that took flight with the socially-charged concept album Operation: Mindcrime, which remains the cornerstone of their catalog.
This criminally-overlooked collective of denim and leather lifers stood at the forefront of Seattle’s burgeoning rock and metal scene at the close of the 70s and into the early-80s. With a robust classic rock sound that drew generously from arena bands like Boston and Bad Company, TKO paid their dues supporting the likes of AC/DC, Van Halen and Cheap Trick. Full of grimy riffs, punchy tempos and piledriving hooks, TKO turned in a slate of sturdy hard rock classics, peaking with 1979’s Let It Roll.
Amid the wholesale rejection of old school metal at the dawn of the 90s, Soundgarden fearlessly channeled their inner Zeppelin, plunging headlong into sludgy riffs, towering choruses and the otherworldly roar of vocalist Chris Cornell. Their indifference to fitting into the Seattle sound calcifying around them attracted a new generation of fans, entranced by Kim Thayil’s lumbering riffs, Cornell’s sharp lyricism and the band’s resinous forays into prog and psychedelia. They remain one of the generation’s most important artists.
Urged on by the same bleak, sunless winters that inspired influences like Mayhem and Darkthrone, WITTR have synthesized an exhilarating amalgam of Norwegian black metal, spacey atmospherics and moody orchestral interludes in service of ecological spiritualism and rangey astral voyaging. While their breath-stopping debut — Diadem Of 12 Stars – set a sturdy, blackened cornerstone for their sound, 2011’s Celestial Lineage captures their finest moment – a thoroughly ambitious and transfixing amalgam of traditional BM, velvety textures, and spectral dynamics.
After Green River’s breakup in 1988, future Pearl Jam founders Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament hooked up with Bolanesque singer Andrew Wood, a glammy and highly-gifted showman who invested the duo’s funked-up classic rock stylings with a thrilling sense of unpredictability. Sadly, Wood’s fatal overdose in 1990 – months before their major label debut – would draw the curtain on MLB, although their ridiculously-hooky influences echo loudly in Pearl Jam’s first three releases, as well as the Wood-inspired tribute, Temple of the Dog.
Originally hatched in the mid-90s in a Seattle rehearsal room under the name Mars, guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson (also founders of Southern Lord records) have attracted a cult following, feverishly devoted to their inventive fusion of noise rock, black metal and drone. Pronounced just “Sun,” the duo evolved from an Earth tribute band to a vanguard of ambient experimentalism, catching the murky percussive spirit of fellow Seattleites, Melvins, while creating something as arresting as it it unique.
If there’s a rule to be broken, count on Melvins founders Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover to be the first to show up with sledgehammers. Founded in 1983, Melvins entered the post-punk era with one eye on Sabbath and the other on distant, faraway landscapes of hardcore, doom and weird deconstructionism. Behind a sustained onslaught of sludgy riffs and concussive grooving, Melvins have released an astonishingly ambitious body of work that boasts consistently high quality, while somehow continuing to elude mainstream appreciation.
Love them or loathe them, only the snobbiest of metal elitists would deny Nirvana’s place as the most influential band to hail from the city of Seattle. One of rock’s elite power trios, Nirvana did not destroy hair metal so much as offer a smarter, heavier alternative, both sonically and lyrically. Their game-changing debut, Nevermind, was far too polished and muscular to fit with the spare garage sound of grunge acts like Mudhoney, dispensing stadium-filling anthems with scream-out choruses that tapped deeply into the mainstream. Like Mother Love Bone, they will ever linger in the realm of “What Could Have Been” thanks to Kurt Cobain’s tragic fatal overdose – on shotgun pellets – in 1994.