1991 was the year when the 1990s really got started. A-listers Metallica and Guns N’ Roses both released blockbusting albums (two in the case of the latter), while grunge broke big courtesy of Nirvana. But the metal underground was healthier than ever, with landmark albums by everyone from Cathedral and Mr Bungle to a fast-rising Brazilian band named Sepultura. These are the albums that defined those whirlwind 12 months…
Cathedral - Forest Of Equilibrium
No one expected Napalm Death’s ex-singer to reinvent himself as a doom icon. But that’s what Lee Dorrian did on Cathedral’s landmark debut.
“Morosely magnificent slow-motion doom,” promised the tagline, confusing many who came to the album expecting more of the same from Dorrian’s stint fronting the grindcore pioneers, or Gaz Jennings’ history in flippant thrashers Acid Reign.
But, the result of the pair's mutual doom obsession – twisted by their own forward-thinking extreme impulses – Forest Of Equilibrium remains truly a unique, pivotal recording.
Guns N’ Roses - Use Your Illusion I & II
Typical of being the biggest band in the world, Guns N’ Roses went for it in a major way. Some might say too much, for the overblown nature of Use Your Illusion went some way to alienating people against the band – though that wasn't a difficult feat in Axl Rose’s case.
If the first disc showed a band ripping hard between what they were best at (bluesy hard rock) and what their singer wanted (Elton John meets Queen), the second of the two releases (AKA the blue and purple one) might not have rocked as hard, but its variety proved it had its very own spicy life.
From both volumes one could create a killer album – possibly to rival the debut – but both of these were bloody brilliant on their own.
Metallica - Metallica
With 15 million copies sold in the US alone, Metallica’s fifth album is the one that made them superstars. Not by accident, but by design.
Metallica – commonly known as ‘The Black Album’ – was a bold move, a shift from thrash metal to mainstream rock, with shorter, slower, more direct songs, and most controversially, a slick production from Bob Rock, whose previous clients included Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe.
Hardcore fans feared Metallica had sold out, but the huge riffs of Enter Sandman and Sad But True proved they’d lost none of their power, while the two rock ballads, The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters, had genuine emotional weight. The gamble paid off.
Morbid Angel - Blessed Are The Sick
After the chaotic energy rippling through their debut album, the second album from Morbid Angel sealed their place at the head of the death metal pack.
Blessed Are The Sick showed the Tampa, Florida legends learning to bring a bit more control to their breakneck sound, but within the album's sputtering blasts, half-time crawl and Trey Azagthoth's luminous leads is a feast of death metal DNA.
Add in lashings of lustful devil worship and an intense fascination with evil and your early 90s extreme metal boxes are pretty much all ticked.
Mr Bungle - Mr Bungle
Their debut album was unsettling and utterly, utterly brilliant. It showed a generation of burgeoning noiseniks that heavy music didn't have to be heavy all of the time – instead it could be cinematic and expansive, it could be funny, it could be technical and non-technical, all within the same song.
Fun, offensive, dark and chaotic and a blueprint for a generation of musicians whose minds had really been opened to how experimental and agenda-setting heavy music could really be.
Nirvana - Nevermind
“I want to sound heavy.”
This was the sole instruction Kurt Cobain issued to producer Butch Vig on May 2, 1991, the day the producer sat down behind the Neve soundboard at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California to start the tape rolling for the recording of Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind.
You cannot overstate the influence Nirvana have had on the geography of music since the release of that album in 1991.
In the UK, the trio made alternative, heavy music dominate the mainstream for the first time since punk. In the US they did the same… for the first time ever. In one fell swoop metal, rock and indie were irrevocably altered – not entirely for the good – and the doors to the charts were smashed open for a legion of bands that would include The Offspring, Green Day and even Weezer.
Ozzy Osbourne - No More Tears
The biggest selling album of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career is also his most adventurous.
Ending a run of three patchy releases, No More Tears had Ozzy – by now an obsessive gym bunny – sounding revitalised, and guitarist Zakk Wylde hitting peak form.
Pivotal to this album’s success was its monolithic title track, the best and most leftfield Ozzy song since Diary Of A Madman. Built around a throbbing bass riff written by ex-Alice In Chains man Mike Inez but rearranged and recorded by veteran Bob Daisley, it gave Ozzy relevance in the age of alternative rock, while Mama, I’m Coming Home (with lyrics by Lemmy) was a classic old-school ballad.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik
The Red Hot Chili Peppers might have left rock behind long ago, but in 1992 this was on just about every metal fan’s turntable.
Enter producer/guru/star-maker Rick Rubin, whose work on the Chilis’ fifth album helped turn them into the megastars they’d always been in their heads. Recorded in a supposedly haunted mansion once owned by Harry Houdini, Blood Sugar Sex Magik exists where the spiritual meets the carnal.
Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and Sir Psycho Sexy take their livewire funk rock to its logical conclusion, but it’s Kiedis’s tender junkie’s mea culpa Under The Bridge that stands as the album’s outstanding moment.
Sepultura - Arise
An overlooked step on Max and co‘s journey to domination, suddenly Brazil showed it could punch its weight on the world stage.
The success of 1989 album Beneath The Remains had put Sepultura in a place where they didn’t have to worry about the small things and could just focus on playing; their follow-up album was testament to that.
Arise had it all: amazing breakdowns, squealing solos and the magic that made Sepultura such an enticing proposition in the early 90s. Exactly what heavy metal was meant to be.
Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger
The Grammy-nominated third album from Soundgarden was
a more collaborative affair than their previous record, not least because of new bass player Ben Shepherd.
The results were more cohesive and almost upbeat. Songs were tighter, arrangements a little more taut. Guitarist Kim Thayil said the bassist had made the album both faster and weirder. They even got ‘alternative’ radio play with the singles Outshined and Rusty Cage while Jesus Christ Pose was as controversial as it was acclaimed. Soundgarden crowned the album’s success by hopping on to GN’R’s Use Your Illusion tour.
They’d been early out of the grunge traps, but with Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden sealed their legend.