Album Review: GRUNTRUCK Gruntruck
Grunge is kind of like techno, in that both are 90's artifacts that are often dismissively rejected for their low points more often than celebrated for their high water marks. Metal fans in particular have always had a mixed reception to the genre, with many embracing the heavier, more commercial of the grunge bands (Soundgarden, Alice in Chains) while shying away from the more classically "punk" ones (Green River, Skin Yard). Gruntruck is one grunge band that somewhat straddles the line between the two – we recently name checked them in our 10 Heaviest Grunge Bands article – but ultimately a combination of limited output, lukewarm promotion and the deteriorating health of frontman Ben McMillan did the band in before they ever really went over with the public.
That's a shame, as the group's two studio albums represent the era's finest alternative rock, a Subpop band that never actually recorded for Subpop, heavy and grooving but with a playfulness and swing to it that speaks more to grunge's early rejection and subversion of "butt rock" tropes than the genre's eventual re-assimilation of those same tropes. Their relative lack of moodiness didn't quite jibe with the dour image of brooding alt-rockers the grunge movement became associated with the instant it hit the mainstream. McMillan's vocals were a sharp parody of rock hero histrionics, somewhat like a less skilled version of Subpop era Chris Cornell on those early, pre-fame Soundgarden releases.
After releasing 1990's Inside Yours and 1992's Push, Gruntruck went mostly quiet on the recording front, putting out just one more EP in 1996, the same year the group were forced to declare bankruptcy. The following year, the band began recording their belated third album, this time without any record label oversight. With no lucrative offer sheets coming through, Gruntruck remained unsigned, and this third album has spent the past 20 years gathering dust. In the interim, McMillan passed away due to complications from diabetes, and it was thought that the band would be relegated to the ash heap of distant memory.
Enter Jack Endino, who produced the unreleased album and finally found a sympathetic backer for its release in indie label Found Recordings. So here we are, finally putting an end cap on what should have been an enviable career to one of Seattle's most unheralded bands. Production-wise, Gruntruck is a logical follow up to the more polished sound of their sophomore effort, Push. Album opener "Bar Fly" is definitely of an error, chugging guitars and warbly vocals setting a familiar scene recognizable to any fan of underground 90's alt-rock. "War Flower" features a heavy dollop of the Sabbath worship filtered through a punk rock sensibility that was emblematic of most early grunge. "Build a Hole" and "Trip" use the crunch of the grunge guitar sound to aim for poppier ambitions, frankly to kind of limited effect.
And that's Gruntruck in a nutshell: the material is a mixed bag, a collection of tracks all too obviously recorded over a period of several years in multiple studios. The band have a strong enough identity that the music is never quite all over the place, but it does bear the scars of varying levels of inspiration, something entirely understandable given the duress of the group's later years. It's nice to have these recordings to pad out a great band's legacy, but ultimately this material sheds more light on why Gruntruck never quite got over than it reflects a band on the verge of any major breakout.