If the late 1980s can be identified as a period of cultural and musical fracturing, then the early 1990s is surely defined by a marked and probably permanent acceleration of that divergence. With the mainstream on corporate life support and the homogenized march of nu metal through the alternative scene, the nineties are seldom remembered as a cultural or musical high point by anyone who wasn’t actually young during that period.
Nonetheless, there were some glimmers of hope in the dark, and here are my favourite albums from the first half of that difficult decade.
1990 – Elizium by Fields of the Nephilim
At the risk of committing gothic rock heresy, I’ve often thought that Fields of the Nephilim were seriously overrated. However, they proved more than capable with this absolute beauty, and what I believe is by far their strongest release. For a start they seriously dialled back on Carl McCoy’s voice effects, resulting in very pleasant surprise for many listeners. McCoy’s much improved vocals are seamlessly blended with a much more creative use of guitar, bass and keyboards to produce a languid and often haunting audio experience.
Musically speaking, Elizium takes its time, perhaps reflecting a personal and musical maturity that was wanting in the promising but not-quite-there Nephilim album. Elizium is best played loud, especially during the slower, more sweeping sections of this often ignored and unjustly forgotten album.
1991 – Hey Stoopid by Alice Cooper
Confirmed alcoholic Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) finally stopped drinking in 1983, and that personal journey partly explains Cooper’s creative rebirth and undoubtedly contributed to the two best written, arranged and engineered albums he’s ever released. Once you’ve gotten past the admittedly questionable cover, Hey Stoopid is an unapologetic orgy of rock production gorgeousness. With a really, really big sound and plenty of Cooper’s old theatrical flair, this album is like a connoisseur’s wine cellar, where all the mediocre stuff has been served to guests and the quality stock is kept safely hidden away. Tracks like Might as well be on Mars and Love’s a Loaded Gun remain true to the time honoured Cooperesque ethos, while dishing out newer and hitherto untasted dollops of bitter anger and lasting regret.
In the final analysis, Hey Stoopid just sounds so freakin’ good that it can get away with just about anything.
Carter USM were the back row dwelling, bogey flicking, teacher taunting bad boys of an increasingly whiny, sanctimoniously self-referential and horribly bourgeois indie scene that was bubbling up during that decade. With a great big ballsy sound and playfully insightful lyrics, The Love Album is a long overdue swipe at the establishment from the parts of Britain that were scorned and left behind during the previous decade.
Even the album’s cover is eerily prescient of the cultural and economic divide which has now been laid bare within British society, despite an increasingly discredited media class’s efforts to pretend it had never existed before 2016.
With several Sinatra gags and parodies thrown in for fun, the chart topping Love Album is possibly the biggest poke in the establishment’s eye since Never Mind the Bollocks went and gobbed on the mayor’s car back in ’77.
In fact, the unstoppable Carter stopped after only a decade, and many of us still lament the departure of those very gifted and unashamedly rowdy street poets.
1993 – Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode
Following on from the massive success of Violator, Songs of Faith & Devotion was produced by a band who were at the peak of their powers and charting an exciting new creative direction. Gone are the last vestiges of the eighties pop band, shoved aside by something with a much harder edge and a far more subversive sound.
Accompanied by a massive tour, Songs of Faith and Devotion is arguably the first album by the “new” Depeche Mode of the nineties and beyond. Not afraid to experiment and seemingly less interested in the fickle tastes of pop fans, it’s almost as though these guys had decided to keep the fans they themselves had grown up and matured with.
This is not an album that fits easily into any category, and although the newer influences of the growing grunge movement can clearly be heard, SOFAD stubbornly refuses to be tied down creatively. Some have decried this as a creative identity crisis, while I believe Depeche Mode were blazing a trail for others to follow with this album.
Brave is Marillion’s third studio album fronted by the hugely talented Steve Hogarth, marking yet another course adjustment on their seemingly endless musical voyage. Much smaller of stature than Fish, Hogarth nonetheless more than manages to fill the big man’s shoes as Marillion return to the prog rock roots that were, and remain the cornerstone of their continued success.
Based on a report of a young amnesiac girl, Brave charts her fictional, troubled and invisible life within an insular society that found her easier to ignore than to protect. Another prescient piece of work given the seemingly endless procession of disturbing cases of conscious institutional neglect we’ve uncovered in recent years.
Showcasing all of their musical flexibility and creativity, Brave also marks Marillion’s departure from an increasingly insular mainstream music scene as they set out to build a much more independent operation. Their years of hard work and forward thinking have been amply rewarded with a corporate-proof fan base and enviable creative freedom.
The nineties can be thought of as the first skirmishes of the often cited “culture war” which is raging across most of the West. During the decade of Brit Pop and the Spice Girls, it was difficult to shake the feeling that doubters and thinkers were being deliberately driven out of mainstream culture, to be replaced by safely sanitised short skirt rebellions. The unpalatable truth is that Girl Power was merely the creation of middle aged men in tall buildings, who were smart enough to make a ton of money by selling an insurrection deliberately designed to go nowhere.
However, the culturally cleansed did not simply disappear. They retreated to the internet and patiently waited for their time to strike.