I've heard it argued by people (especially with the recent 20th anniversary of Nevermind) that Grunge was the last big movement in Rock and Roll. Since 1994 when Kurt Cobain chose to remove himself from the equation, there has not been a sub-genre that has equalled the resonance that grunge had with the general populace or even just the music press. And it's true that “the Seattle sound” was one of the last local scenes to make itself known to the world in such a big scale. Like Liverpool and San Francisco in the 1960's or New York In the late 1970's or Manchester in the late 1980's the Northwest scene exploded and then died down a few short years later. Like all of these local scenes that were suddenly popular, bands that didn't sound a whole lot like each other were all pigeonholed together based on their geographical location. For example, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam are a world away from each other in terms of the tone of their sound and their style, yet as they are both Seattle bands from the late 1980's and early 1990's they are “Grunge”. Even bands that were not from the Seattle area were given the label, just because they happened to be loud, indie-rock bands from America. It's a tag that many bands have tried to shrug off but some of them bear more similarities to the genre as a whole than many of the bands who originated in the Pacific Northwest.
Big Chief are one of these bands. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, a town better known for its soul music than its hard rock (with the very notable exceptions of the MC5 and the Stooges), Big Chief signed with Sub Pop and released a couple of weird and wonderful albums in the early 90's, including 1991's Face, before moving to a major, making one last album and breaking up in 1996. On their earlier Product EP, the band established themselves as the missing link between the darker, heavier and more brooding Alice In Chains and the raw, “we-don't-really-give-a-shit” approach of Mudhoney. This album finds the band slightly more tighter and rehearsed and the better for it.
The first thing you notice about the record is the sleeve. Bright orange and blue, with an almost tribal illustration by band member Mark Dancey, it looks unlike any other record that Sub Pop had released up to that point. The only thing really connecting the album to the label is the logo and photo of the band on the back, where their look of flannel shirts and long hair betrays them as a Sub Pop act. The actual vinyl itself is a wonderful marbled orange. Say what you will about Sub Pop, they always know how to make an album feel special.
The opener to both Product and Face is the rumbling, brutal, sludge of Fresh Vines. It's rare that a heavy rock band mixes their tracks with the bass so loud, that it starts to mask both the guitar and the drums. It dominates the opening riff of the track with a slow yet densely threatening presence, like a snake preparing to attack. About 30 seconds into the song though, it becomes obvious that the band have influences outside of the hard rock genre. The guitar and bass launch into a bouncy, funky riff whilst Barry Henssler's Rap/sung vocals betray the influence the burgeoning Detroit hip-hop scene had on the band. The chorus is perfectly crooned by female backing singers leaving you with little doubt that this band have aspirations of being more than just another obscure rock act.
The Ballad of Dylan Cohl finds Henssler doing his best Mark Arm impression, with some of his phrasing and forming of words almost exact replicas of sections of Mudhoney and Green River songs. It's one of several examples of Big Chief's “sampling” that appear on this record. At the start of several of their songs are clips from several old movies and the Allmusic review of the album accuses the band of lifting riffs from two Black Sabbath songs for the intro to Fresh Vines. It's hardly anything new, bands copy each other all the time, but it does show how deep the influences of certain genres run in this band.
The aforementioned film clips are actually quite effective palate cleansers between songs. The exception, however, is at the start of Reduced To Tears, in which the sound of a man begging and pleading, in a rather disturbing way, to not have to do something whilst a calm female voice tries to coax him along is played for what seems like a lot longer than it actually is.
Big Chief have some impressive ideas and they pull them off very well. They were one of the earlier bands to combine elements of Funk and Hip-hop with a hard rock sound which gives them a lot of freedom to experiment with different rhythms and riffs. As the record progresses, the band slip more and more into hard rock territory with Lie There And Be Good culminating in a long drawn out guitar solo. The final track however is a funk/hip-hop remix of Fresh Vines. With the record now 20 years old, the remix sounds a bit dated as a lot of early 90's dance does, but it's a rare thing to see on a Sub Pop record at the height of the Grunge craze. As interesting as the snippets of audio in between songs are, the feeling that they’re added to break up a somewhat repetitive album is not entirely escapable. Don't get me wrong, the album is incredibly listenable and the songs and musicianship are great but the band seem content to stick to the big riffs and funky rhythms throughout the record, rarely changing the pace.
Big Chief were never going to be the biggest band in the scene, but they seem to encompass a lot of the elements of a genre that is notoriously ill-defined. The big distorted riffs, the love of cheesy blacksploitation movies (in an ironic sense of course), a vocalist with a powerful yet raw and untrained voice. These were all things that many Seattle bands shared but few combined into one. Big chief managed to mix these elements with their own individual style and influences. This is the sound of a band, seeking to make an album of all the music that it’s members love in one big go and the result is a record that is somewhat unique amongst the other “Grunge” acts and those that followed in their wake.
Note: The clip below says that the track is Fresh Vines, it isn't its Reduced To Tears. See what I mean about the crying?