SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

GRUNTRUCK – PUSH (1992)

October 6th, 1992, GRUNTRUCK released their second album, Push, Through Roadrunner Records. The debate regarding why certain bands fly under the radar, and others soar to mega-stardom will always rage. To the band’s hardcore fans, understanding why Seattle’s Gruntruck never attained the success they richly deserved is a conundrum. 

The band’s roots began in 1988 when three friends, Chris Cornell, Scott McCullum and Eric Garcia, began jamming together. Calling themselves Bass Truck, their modus operandi was to make pummelling, heavy, primaeval rock. With Chris Cornell’s other band, Soundgarden, signing to A&M Records in late 1988, his schedule became busy with the band recording their major label debut, Louder Than Love, Bass Truck was put on the back burner. 

Drummer Scott McCullum returned to Skin Yard, another criminally underrated Seattle outfit. Skin Yard was formed in 1985 by guitarist/producer extraordinaire Jack Endino. He was joined by bassist Daniel House, founder of C/Z Records and, throughout the years, a dazzling array of drumming talent. Skin Yards drum stool was populated by a who’s who of gifted Pacific Northwest percussionists, beginning with Matt Cameron (Soundgarden/Pearl Jam) in 1985, Steve Weid (TAD) in 1986, Greg Gilmore (Ten Minute Warning/Mother Love Bone) in 1986, Jason Finn (Love Battery/The Presidents Of The United States Of America) in 1986, Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees/Mad Season) in 1989, and Gruntruck’s Scott McCullum from 1987 to 1989. 

Also in the Skin Yard ranks was frontman Ben McMillan. Ben was a talented artist and musician with a commanding voice and stage presence. Skin Yard had invited Tommy Niemeyer from legendary crossover thrash band The Accüsed to guest on a track from their Fist Sized Chunks album. Shortly after that, Ben McMillan bumped into bass player Tim Paul who was originally from Portland and had been in the punk bands Final Warning, Napalm Beach and Poison Idea. 

Ben McMillan, Scott McCullum, Tim Paul and Tommy Niemeyer got together in 1989 and formed Gruntruck. The name derived from Scott’s previous effort, Bass Truck, swapping the “bass” for “grunt.” Even though Ben and Scott were still committed to Skin Yard and Tommy was still a member of The Accüsed, they began writing material for what would make up their debut album, Inside Yours. 

Recorded at the legendary Reciprocal Recording studio and produced by Jack Endino. The band considered Inside Yours a one-off due to the member’s commitments with their other bands. Jack Endino’s production career was taking off; by this time, he had already recorded iconic Sub Pop albums for Green River, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana. Inside Yours was released on the small Seattle-based punk label eMpTy Records in 1990. 

Despite the members considering Gruntruck a side project at this time, Inside Yours sounds like a vital slab of rock by a seriously committed band. The chemistry between them is abundant—Tommy Niemeyer’s crushing, gilt-edged riffs. Tim Paul and Scott McCullum’s pummelling rhythm section drives every song with considerable energy and groove. Ben McMillan’s rhythm guitar and huge, gruff, melodic voice propels the band’s considerable heft skyward. 

On release, Inside Yours was highly regarded by those with their ear to the ground. On the back of such positive feedback, the band decided to play a handful of shows. These turned into must-see events. Even though Gruntruck were essentially a side project, their stature grew in the local scene. With a stellar debut album and incendiary live shows, word began to spread. 

Roadrunner Records was founded in 1980 in the Netherlands. Their initial business was importing North American heavy metal recordings into Europe. In 1986, Roadrunner opened its US headquarters in New York City. They were releasing albums by Sepultura, Obituary, King Diamond, and Annihilator, to name but a few. By 1991, like all labels at that time, they began to look toward the Seattle scene for fresh acts to sign. The musical explosion that detonated in the Pacific Northwest region had captivated the world and turned the record industry on its head overnight. 

Roadrunner began to scout the area for talent. When A&R man Monty Scott asked Seattle-based promoter Jeff Gilbert who the best band in Seattle was, Gilbert replied, “No fucking question: Gruntruck.” Monty flew to Seattle and signed the band. What was a side project suddenly became a lot more serious. 

The band entered the studio in the spring of 1992 to begin work on Inside Yours follow-up. Jack Endino and Gary King took on co-production duties in a converted movie studio called Red Farm Films in Seattle. The band made the environment their own and effectively moved into the studio for the two months of recording. This situation proved inspiring, with creativity at a high; many of the songs for Push were written in the studio. After the recording ended, the band went on tour with Alice In Chains before the album’s release. 

Widely considered the great lost Grunge-era classic, Push is a magnetic banger, teaming with metallic riffs, savage grooves and monster hooks. Scott McCullum, who was now going under the name Norman Scott, excelled with nuanced drumming, Tim Paul’s dirty bass lines leant heft, and the combined guitar work of Tom Niemeyer and Ben McMillan are outstanding, as are McMillan’s vocals.

The album opens with “Tribe.” Tommy Niemeyer’s crushing guitar riff opens the proceedings, followed by Norman Scott’s apt tribal drum patterns. The band then lock into a devastating, tight, down-tuned groove. Its jittery stops and starts, and hammer blow intensity is deeply satisfying. Ben McMillan’s call to arms of, “I just want to fly my freak flag. Come on, join our tribe,” echos through the song’s chorus.

“Break” again starts with a powerful guitar riff. The song’s faster pace doesn’t sacrifice the groove. Adding a droning high-pitched guitar elevates the excitement and tension before Ben enters with, “Lines across the face, she says they’re a river flow, Got a little place, yeah, where we can go.” “Break” hits hard. This is infectious, powerful rock songwriting. Not a single note or riff is overused. 

“Machine Action” opens with an arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Tim Paul’s lead bass lines. In the distance, we hear an electric guitar moving toward us in the mix. Suddenly, it’s on top of the listener as the band strikes in and lays down one of the most infectious, crushing guitar riffs of the early ’90s. “Machine Action’s” power is in its simplicity. Its titanic energy is barely contained within the song structure. 

Gruntruck’s songwriting was always taut and focused. All fat was trimmed from the bone. Their songs were as lean and to the point as any great AC/DC track. Extraneous sounds and clever song sections were jettisoned in favour of direct, highly expressive performances. 

That tenant was on full display for “Crazy Love.” Opening with a slippery, bending, single-note guitar riff. Norman Scott goes tribal on the kit before they lock into another neck-cranking stop-start machine groove riff. McMillan sings, “I want to dig right in and travel to your centre; a little lazy love will surely resurrect us.” 

“Gotta Believe” is a grinding banger with an infectious air of detached cool. Tommy Niemeyer’s instrumental breaks fit the mood like a glove while being void of usual rock guitar cliches. “Follow”, chugs as Ben McMillan’s ghostly voice intones, “Follow me to the road upland. Soon, you’ll follow. Soon, it’s all right. I will hold you until you follow. To the road up there!” as the song explodes in raucous energy. 

“Above Me” is a scorching slow burn; its pulverizing heaviness feels like a slow-motion car wreck. Eerie and dark but utterly compelling, like some malevolent force seeping from the backwoods of Washington State. “It’s alright, I’m doing fine, As long as you’re above me. It’s ok, I’m doing fine. As long as I’m below you,” sings McMillan. 

Tim Paul’s bass opens “Slow Scorch.” The song transitions through slurred guitar octave passages, military stomp riffage and expansive, open, arpeggiated chords. “Body Farm” is another uniquely infectious riff; in fact, the song has two incredible riffs across its verse and chorus. The band’s ability to harness the groove and power of these savage guitar workouts is commendable. 

“Racked” sinks its teeth into a stuttering riff that seethes with tension; the chorus opens up to offer relief, and a guttural halftime breakdown is the icing on the cake. “Lose” opens in an atmospheric fog before locking into a snaking groove. Tommy Niemeyer’s guitar solo is a particular highlight. The album ends with the title track, “Push”, which fades in from silence, augmented by a sleek, jazzy saxophone played by Ben McMillan; it’s a fitting end to an incredible album. 

Push was Gruntruck’s final album for twenty-five years. Serious label troubles and singer Ben McMillan’s health issues continually scuppered the band’s plans. In January 2008, Ben McMillan passed away after an eight-year battle with diabetes. He was just 47 years old. Between 1997 and 2003, the band recorded what would have been their third album, called Gruntruck, which was finally released in October 2017, nine years after the passing of Ben McMillan. 

The sad loss of Ben McMillan is hard to fathom when listening to the impeccable back-catalogue of music he left behind with Skin Yard and Gruntruck. His powerful yet melodic voice sounded like it was hewn from the rich soil of the Pacific Northwest; he seemed unbreakable. 

Essential…!