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The Boston Phoenix Return to Rock

Creed, STP, and AIC

By Matt Ashare

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  A couple of weeks ago, MTV once again zeroed in on what passes for the zeitgeist these days -- which means just about anything that can be quickly packaged and sold to young consumers with the will to accessorize. MTV did so with something called the "Return to Rock" weekend, a couple of days when teeny-poppers and Yo MTV Rappers were forced to take a back seat to an array of white guys with guitars. And, for the first time in years, the notion of Ricki Rachman's bringing back his "Headbangers Ball" (the once popular heavy-metal hoedown that, before the alternative nation put it out of business, was to the late '80s what Yo MTV Raps is to the late '90s) didn't seem all that far-fetched.

As if to confirm that MTV still has its virtual finger on the lucrative pulse of America's youth, the grungy hard-rock/heavy-metal band Creed not only debuted at #1 last week on the Billboard album sales chart with their new Human Clay (Wind-Up) but did so in the face of stiff competition, with new releases by country megastar Garth Brooks and the charismatic hip-hop duo of Method Man and Redman jockeying for the #2 and #3 spots. According to Billboard columnist Geoff Mayfield, Creed are only the third rock act to top the chart this year. That stat says as much about the sad state of commercial rock as it does about the popularity of Creed, especially when you consider that the other two Mayfield is counting are Limp Bizkit and Nine Inch Nails, the former a rap-rock band and the latter a one-man techno-industrial complex. In other words, by my count, Creed are the first rock to top the chart in '99.

So, who hell are Creed? That seems to be a remarkably popular question, even though the Florida-based foursome scored three radio hits off their triple-platinum 1997 debut, My Own Prison, and got Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger excited enough to join them on stage at Woodstock this past summer for renditions of "Roadhouse Blues" and "Riders on the Storm." One simple answer is, they're that band on the radio who sound like Alice in Chains.

Why aren't Creed more of a household name? As Mayfield accurately points out, the media haven't paid much attention to Creed, perhaps because, well, they do sound an awful lot like Alice in Chains. And media types tend to focus more on the first and second waves of a particular style, when words like "hot" and "new" can be tossed around freely, than on the third, fourth, and fifth waves, until you're far enough from the source that it can begin to be called a hot, new revival. So, maybe after two years that have seen hip-hop and R&B dominating rock, the total collapse of the last of the Seattle grunge empire (Soundgarden breaking up/Alice in Chains on an extended hiatus), and a resurgence of the kind of slickly produced dance pop that Nirvana and Pearl Jam drove from the top of the charts, we've finally come far enough down the line for Creed to be spearheading a retro trend.

The blueprint for the deep, dark, menacing churn of Creed's sludge-factory guitars, clenched and knotty vocals, Zeppelinesque rhythm assaults, and overall tone of angst-ridden anguish and soul-searching desperation belongs to Alice in Chains. And you can hear AIC developing what, along with rap rock and industrial metal, became one of the major sonic archetypes for hard rock in the '90s on the new Music Bank (Columbia, in stores October 26), a three-CD, 48-track box-set overview of the band's decade-long career that probably wouldn't be necessary yet if they were still an actual working entity. But with singer Layne Staley on what's turning out to be an extended leave of absence, guitarist Jerry Cantrell enjoying a successful solo career, and four years having passed since the band's last proper studio album, something needed to be done to maintain the valuable AIC brand name.

The box features an assortment of the usual archival enticements -- a previously unreleased Staley/Cantrell tune ("Died"), rare B-sides, demos, remixes, alternate takes, and live recordings, as well as a healthy sampling of album tracks taken from the band's four Columbia CDs and some CD-ROM embellishments. The story it tells is one that traces the emergence of '90s hard rock from the spandex ashes of its '80s counterpart. Early on, in the demos for the band's largely forgotten pre-grunge 1990 debut, Facelift (Columbia), you can hear the clearly defined influence of Guns N' Roses on the AIC sound, both in Staley's attempts to mimic Axl Rose's vocals and in Cantrell's guitar, which awkwardly tries to incorporate some of the boogie blues that defined Slash's playing style.

Elsewhere, Music Bank simply surveys the rock that's become a foundation for bands like Creed, who are to the late '90s what Stone Temple Pilots were to the first half of the decade -- commercially successful, critically maligned (or, at least, ignored) disciples of the great grunge titans. Like the STP of '92's Core (Atlantic), Creed make better pop music than do Alice in Chains. But what Human Clay and Core have to offer in terms of radio-friendly hooks is offset by a corresponding lack of depth or substance or, for lack of a better word, soul. That's not to say pop music can't also be deep and soulful, only that in some cases it's not. Of course, such things are almost purely subjective, so I'm sure there are plenty of young Creed fans hanging on each and every one of singer Scott Stapp's brow-furrowing howling and growling ruminations.

With their cleverly titled new Atlantic album IV (catch the Zeppelin reference and the allusion to singer Scott Weiland's intravenous drug problem), Stone Temple Pilots prove that a band who sound shamelessly derivative in one context (the alterna-grunge years of '92-'95) can easily take on a whole new meaning in different circumstances. Actually, the shift started back in '96, when STP reinvented themselves as something closer to Urge Overkill than to Alice in Chains -- a revved- and glammed-up punking power-pop band as at home plundering Beatlisms as they were copping Zeppelinesque riffs. Unfortunately, the band fell apart before they could capitalize on the rave reviews garnered by Tiny Music . . . Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop (Atlantic). But IV more or less picks up where Tiny Music left off, sweetening the crunch of Dean DeLeo's power chords and Eric Kretz's hammering backbeats with nifty "la, la, la" vocal harmonies, Beatlesque bridges, folky acoustic-guitar interludes, a tune, "Pruno," that mutates from U2-style atmospherics to a glam-rocking chorus that brings to mind David Bowie, and another, "Atlanta," that recalls the moody meandering blues of the Doors, replete with Weiland pulling off a convincing Jim Morrison impersonation.

STP haven't completely abandoned the brooding grunge of their early years, some of which sounds awfully good now that Nirvana are long gone, Alice in Chains are out of commission, and Pearl Jam are in a world of their own. Next to Creed, STP come across as a subtle, nuanced, musically sophisticated band -- a real return to a classic kind of rock that served as a blueprint for Alice in Chains' blueprint for '90s rock. As a result, in what would certainly be an ironic twist, STP could end up being more of a hit with critics in '99 than on the charts, where a genuine return to rock may take more than an MTV weekend and a new Creed album to gain a genuine foothold.

The score on IV

It hasn't been quite four years since Stone Temple Pilots put out Tiny Music . . . Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop (Atlantic, 1996), the band's third full-length. That's when singer Scott Weiland's by now well-publicized problems with drugs were becoming his equally well-publicized problems with the law. When Weiland's situation kept the band from touring, it also signaled the start of an internal breakdown that would, by the end of '96, lead to the dissolution of STP.

Three-fourths of the band -- drummer Eric Kretz and brothers Robert (bass) and Dean (guitar) DeLeo -- recruited a new singer and released an album as Talk Show. Meanwhile, Weiland stumbled in and out of court, rehab, jail, and the studio, where he found time to record an impressive Bowie-esque solo CD that came out in '98. And Talk Show, well, Talk Show went nowhere. "We realized right away that we really missed the connection the three of us had with Scott," admits Kretz, whom I spoke to in August, just weeks after a California judge sentenced Weiland to a year behind bars for violating the terms of his parole. "The chemistry on stage just wasn't the same."

STP reconvened in the studio back in January of this year. "We were all really nervous, just wondering whether or not this thing was still going to work," Kretz admits. "But we got right to work on the song 'Down,' the new album's first single, and there was Scott sitting on the couch writing 99 percent of the lyrics right then and there. Half an hour later Dean pulled out 'Sour Girl,' Scott started writing the lyrics, and it was like, 'What the hell were we worried about?' It's such a cliché, but it really felt like we were picking up right where we'd left off."

It didn't take long for the band to agree on the direction for IV. "We all kept saying, 'Bring back the rock,' " Kretz explains. " 'Let's just keep the harder songs coming.' With a lot of new bands, the energy is there but what's lacking is that blues influence, which is really where rock comes from. When you don't have that blues, it's just not the same. Not that we're a blues-rock band, but we all grew up cranking blues-influenced '70s rock bands like Aerosmith and AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, so it is part of what we do."

One thing that won't be a part of what STP do anytime soon is touring, thanks to Weiland's incarceration. Nevertheless, everyone including Weiland agreed it was important to get the album out on schedule, because, as Kretz points out, "when you make an album you're picking up and tuning in on everything that's going on around you, not only with yourself and the people you know, but with the whole world. If you wait too long to put it out, then you're not going to hit the same nerve." And though Weiland's inability to tour was one of the bigger straws that broke the camel's back in '96, Kretz insists it's different this time. "Before we even started this record we talked through a lot of issues and there are no ill feelings toward Scott from myself or Robert or Dean. I mean, the guy's in jail. I feel terrible. I wake up every morning and I look at my house and where I live and just think about the shithole he's in right now. It's terrible." -- MA

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