The Best Band in the World: The 1990s
In this very special guest feature Nate Garrett (Spirit Adrift, Gatecreeper) is taking you on a year-by-year journey through the greatest live performances of each year over the last four decades. We’re continuing our trip with the most X-TREME decade, the 1990s. Take it away, Nate.
Part 3 of our series brings us to the 1990s. Here we see old guard and new blood alike preserving and cultivating the almighty riff. In spite of the convoluted, downright weird climate of the 90’s and the bastardized, phony subgenres that began to rise to prominence, the following bands were pushing the pure energy discovered by Zeppelin and Sabbath into new, sometimes unexpected heights and depths.
Turbo and Ram It Down had Judas Priest on unsteady footing with metal fans and critics by the late ‘80s. The band was experimenting and testing the boundaries of their sound. Sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. In their case, it didn’t quite work. (For the record, I like both of those albums). In 1989, Priest enlisted new drummer Scott Travis (formerly of Racer X), whose speed and technicality was unmatched by any of their previous drummers. Then in 1990 the band recorded and released one of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time, Painkiller. It seems that Judas Priest simultaneously grew weary of experimenting and became determined to outdo the thrash and speed metal bands that taken metal by storm. The songs on Painkillerare replete with all the best attributes of Priest’s songwriting thus far: melody, hooks, epic guitar harmonies, outrageously powerful vocals, and seamless transitions. On top of that, everything was suddenly heavier, faster, and even more in your face. The presentation of the live performance was also amplified. The band looked, acted, and sounded meaner than ever before. Just check out the video below and behold the coordinated assault between Downing, Tipton, and Halford at the end of opening track “Hell Bent For Leather.” They almost look like they’re playing in a hardcore band. This is one of Priest’s many high points.
It’d be easy to have Metallica in this slot. The Black Album is one of the most successful albums ever made in any genre, and they toured the biggest venues in the world for a really, really long time after it was released. But I bet nothing that was happening at a Metallica show in 1991 compared to the violence and insanity of an Obituary show, as evidenced at the link. Obituary is a standout in the death metal genre and always has been. Rather than try to outdo their peers via technicality or virtuosity, they rely on groove, hooks, attitude, and brute force. By 1991, the band was supporting arguably their best album, The Cause Of Death, which had come out toward the end of the previous year. Their live show was so heavy that not even severe technical difficulties could divert their brutal momentum. Check it out below.
These guys could and probably should be considered the greatest metal band of every year from 1990 until 2001, but that would be a pretty boring list. Pantera unwaveringly flew the flag of heavy metal, regardless of the constant flux of the genre’s popularity and legitimacy. No matter how big they got, they took underground bands that they loved on tour even when it didn’t really benefit them. Pantera WAS metal in the ‘90s and early 2000’s. I picked this year because it seems to be the moment just before the wave really broke. Watch some interviews with these guys from around this time, and you’ll see that their excitement, energy, and confidence is palpable. It’s infectious. These were four friends (two of them actual brothers) ready to take over the world, and their big break was happening. They could sense it. The vibe at this particular show resembles the uplifting, unifying atmosphere of a great punk show, and the performances are incredible across the board. Drug abuse, death, stunningly bad decisions, fallings out, and a plethora of other unfortunate events would befall the band in the years to come. But during this period, Pantera was unrivaled and unstoppable.
Alice in Chains
Dirt is as flawless an album as they come. Released in September of 1992, the album peaked at number 6 on the billboard charts. Don’t let the commercial success fool you though, the material is some genuinely dark, fucked up stuff. Everyone in the band was addicted to some sort of substance at the time it was recorded. Jerry Cantrell referred to the band’s mutual drug addictions, depression, and general misery as making the album “stronger and more intense,” and he’s right. Despite the difficulties facing the band, they managed to log 111 shows in 1993 (according to setlist.fm). The video at the link catches the band in the middle of this tour cycle, and it’s hard to believe that they’re struggling with anything that would inhibit their performances. In fact, whatever they’re going through seems to actually help them transcend into a realm of near-perfection. Their playing is soulful, technically precise, and quite simply astounding.
In 1994, EYEHATEGOD were touring in support of Take As Needed For Pain, an album that is the pinnacle of southern sludge/doom, or in the band’s own words “down to earth, motherfucken post-amplification blues.” The live setting is where EYEHATEGOD has always shined, dosing the audience with an alchemical concoction of early Melvins inspired feedback- drenched doom, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s swampy groove, and Black Flag’s unhinged assault. There’s an unpredictable danger to an EYEHATEGOD show. You never know what you’re going to get. Though the band continues to get better to this day, 1994 was clearly a special year for them. There’s a ton of footage of the band from this year on YouTube, so obviously people knew something special was going on. Every bit of the available footage is worth watching, but I picked their November performance supporting COC in Houston in part because of the great banter. There’s, “Hey, all of y’all fucking SUCK,” (Joey), “Beavis and Butthead isn’t here tonight so we’re sorry” (Mike). Also, “Is it metal enough for ya? COC cancelled. This is it. RIOT” (also Mike). There’s nothing like an EYEHATEGOD show.
This isn’t the first band from New Orleans on this list, and it won’t be the last. There was something magical happening in The Big Easy in the 1990’s. While bands from the Pacific Northwest were dominating the mainstream and captivating the world with the grunge movement, something nastier was happening down south. A relatively small group of immensely talented guys were channeling the same love of Black Sabbath and Melvins that was shared by their northern counterparts, but directing it in a sludgier, heavier direction. I saw this Down bootleg when I was young, and like the Skynyrd performance I discuss in Part 1 of this series, I was certain that I was witnessing the best band in the world at the time. In ’95, Down was comprised of the upper echelon of metal musicians in New Orleans, and they were playing songs exclusively from their flawless debut album (plus a Saint Vitus cover). This particular show went down in Dallas, and local boys Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul were in attendance. There’s an indescribable excitement to the whole scene, as is the case with every rising New Orleans metal band at the time.
From Through Silver In Blood to playing Ozzfest, 1996 was the year of Neurosis. They totally revolutionized heavy music and astounded audiences with a primal catharsis the likes of which had never been seen. At a time when something as kitschy as nu-metal was on the rise, Neurosis stood as a beacon of honest, soulful, crushing release. This performance of Locust Star is easily the most terrifying thing that’s occurred on an outdoor stage in broad daylight. Neurosis – Ozzfest 1996:
Out of all the essential Swedish death metal bands, you may be wondering why I would go with In Flames. Two words. Guitar harmonies. 1996’s The Jester Race and 1997’s Whoracle are crammed start to finish with some of the best guitar harmonies in death metal, or any other genre for that matter. It sounds like if Queen or Thin Lizzy were playing in dark medieval times. This band revived and invigorated the beautiful art of the twin guitar attack when we needed it the most. Pro tip: skip around the footage from 2002.
It’s hard to pick a favorite Crowbar album, but two that are frequently pinpointed as their finest hour are 1996’s Broken Glass and 1998’s Odd Fellow’s Rest. The band was on a hell of a streak, and the all-star lineup at this time was a dream come true for any fan of the New Orleans metal scene. OG’s Kirk Windstein and Todd Strange were backed up by Jimmy Bower (MVP of the decade), and Acid Bath’s Sammy Duet. Seeing the band in 1998, you were treated to the best cuts of their prime material, performed by arguably the most crushing lineup the band ever had. As a bit of an aside, I was trying to figure out exactly why so many bands with New Orleans ties ended up on this list, and I came to what I think is an accurate conclusion. No other group of musicians were more obsessed than the NOLA guys with harnessing that spark, that power of the riff that Zeppelin and Sabbath initially discovered decades earlier. This ragtag bunch of Louisiana musicians were the true keepers of that flame throughout the ‘90s. Anyway, I digress… As Kirk says, this is Crowbar from New Orleans, Louisiana, and they’re gonna kick your fucking ass.
Type O Negative
Type O was always an emotionally crushing band, but none of their albums hold a candle in the heaviness department to the tragic weight of 1999’s World Coming Down. Long story short, Peter Steele was going through a bad time. As has been established throughout this piece, sometimes the worst times in someone’s life give them the opportunity and inspiration to produce their most meaningful art. The Drab Four at the end of the millennium were at their heaviest, bleakest, and most profound. Check out this show from October 1st in Detroit and see for yourself. Be sure to check out that Ninja Turtles-esque stage setup, complete with glowing green toxic waste barrel.
Check back next week for Part 4 of this series, The 00s. In the meantime, check out some of Nate’s upcoming tour dates. He is surely, positively coming to a venue near you.
Jun 01 Seattle, WA @ Northwest Terror Fest
Jun 02 Boise, ID @ V.I.P. Boise Event Center
Jun 03 Salt Lake City, UT @ Diabolical Records
Jun 04 Denver, CO @ Streets of London
Jun 05 Kansas City, MO @ Riot Room
Jun 06 Chicago, IL @ Cobra Lounge
Jun 07 Detroit, MI @ Sanctuary
Jun 08 Toronto, ON @ Velvet Underground
Jun 09 Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz
Jun 10 Boston, MA @ Sonia
Jun 11 Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus Bar
Jun 12 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
Jun 13 Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
Jun 14 Nashville, TN @ The End
Jun 15 Little Rock, AR @ White Water
Jun 16 Ft. Worth, TX @ Ridglea
Jun 17 San Antonio, TX @ Limelight
July 25 Blueberry Hill Duck Room – Saint Louis, MO
July 26 Indiana City Brewing Company – Indianapolis, IN
July 27 Ace Of Cups – Columbus, OH
July 28 Mr. Smalls Theatre – Pittsburgh, PA @ Migration Fest
July 29 Metro Gallery – Baltimore, MD
July 30 Kung Fu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA
July 31 Union Pool – New York, NY
August 2 Great Scott – Boston, MA
August 3 3S Artspace – Portsmouth, NH
August 4 Bar Le Ritz – Montréal, QC
August 6 House Of Targ – Ottawa, ON
August 7 Hard Luck – Toronto, ON
August 8 Lager House – Detroit, MI
August 9 Empty Bottle – Chicago, IL
August 11 Lee’s Liquor Lounge – Minneapolis, MN
August 12 Riot Room – Kansas City, MO
August 15 Urban Lounge – Salt Lake City, UT
August 18 Psycho Las Vegas – Las Vegas, NV
August 21 Brick By Brick – San Diego, CA