Nirvana is one of those bands that I call controversial in the metal world for the exact opposite reason that metal was controversial in its early days. It’s accessible, it’s easy to listen to, and their Nevermind album is basically the reason why “modern rock” became what’s known as, well, modern rock. But luckily for you, we’re not here to talk about that today. To few peoples’ knowledge, Nirvana actually had a full length out two years before glam metal was even “killed by grunge.” Thirty years ago, they released the brilliant album titled Bleach, a grossly overlooked record that if everyone who hated Nirvana knew about, they’d likely put their hate to rest.
Ok, that may be a bit of a bold statement, but the truth of the matter is that Bleach wasn’t really grunge as we know it. It had the punky attitude and the noisy aesthetic with lots of crunch to the riffs, but at the end of the day, this isn’t something I’d compare to Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam. I would, however, compare it to some of the earlier works of their brother acts Alice In Chains, and especially Soundgarden. All three bands found a unique sound once matured, but all three also dealt in dingy, noisy roots. Kurt Cobain, in particular, took influences from happy and colorful works alongside extreme heavy metal groups, and ultimately stripped them down to the bare bones. The lyrics didn’t matter; the subject didn’t matter; all that mattered on Bleach was getting an idea that came naturally onto the fretboard.
What that’s gonna boil down to is a disc that’s one-dimensional, focusing heavily on rhythm. Dave Grohl wasn’t even the man behind the kit at this point, so Chad Channing was in charge of holding all of this together. But to stray from basic territory, Nirvana took advantage of heavy bass licks laid down by Krist Novoselic that really helped this album stand out of the pack. “Love Buzz” is such a raw cut that rides on a bouncy bass beat that’s garnished with quick guitar noodles that tie off the ends of each measure perfectly. It’s a cover of an old song by the band Shocking Blue, and it’s pulled off beautifully here. What’s magical about this one is the eerie stillness when Kurt sings the verses, before the heavy riffs begin to creep in. Speaking of creeps, “Negative Creep” is another one that takes the same type of idea but applies a far sharper and faster kick in the nuts, which brought out Cobain’s harsher vocals with it. He wrote the song about himself.
As a matter of fact, a lot of the material on Bleach came from Cobain’s life in Aberdeen. “Scoff” was directed at his parents. Its lyrics are so minimal, yet they get the message across even better than your ten-minute prog-rock songs. It was one of the first songs that truly hooked me to this album. Other songs like “School” and “Mr. Moustache” were meant to be verbal attacks on his surroundings, and his distaste with them. “School” in particular is a standout just due to its booming intro, useful repetition, and messy solo at the end.
The big track from this that cracked real mainstream success was “About A Girl,” which didn’t even become common until it was played on the unplugged album down the road. The two versions cast such different feelings; while the acoustic one sounds a lot more soothing, the original take reeks of the same thing the rest of the album was drenched in. Nothing about this record can paint a relaxing image, and despite the accessibility of “About A Girl,” it still contains a sinking feeling.
Nothing I’m saying here will do the disc justice, though. No matter how I describe all of the simplistic sortings of notes or make my weird comparisons like “this is Led Zeppelin meets Celtic Frost with the Ramones,” you’ve got to experience the whole thing cover to cover. I can’t see myself turning anyone who hates the band onto them with this. But for the skeptics, you’re in for a noise-rock treat with some grunge and punk intertwined. Kurt Cobain may not have been the genius that some will hype him up to be, but he had a damn good thing going in his early years, and even I find some joy from the likes of Nevermind as well.
Bleach came out on June 15th, 1989 through Sub Pop records. There are many different vinyl, cassette, and CD pressings with plenty of reissues to go around, including the 2009 20th anniversary edition. As usual, you can find them all over at Discogs.