New sounds from old rock stars

Carrie Teresa

Nearly 10 years ago, bands such as Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins dominated MTV and what was then termed “alternative” (but now called “modern”) rock radio. These bands — often brilliant but ultimately doomed — failed to see their vision through to the new millennium, replaced first by rap-metal and then the “the” bands, such as the Strokes and the Vines, that dominated last year’s rock scene. This year, though, sees the alternative rock scene coming full circle with musicians such as Chris Cornell, Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and the remaining members of Rage returning the music scene.

Cornell, the former lead singer of Soundgarden, has joined the ex-members of Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk) to form Audioslave. While not as overtly political as Rage, Audioslave is a decent compromise between Cornell’s grunge roots and Rage’s rap-metal loyalties. The group scored a hit with “Cochise” off of its self-titled debut album, and is poised to continue this success with the upcoming release of its next single, “Like a Stone.”

The Renaissance man of ’90s rock, Grohl, has filled the post-Nirvana period with two successful ventures — first as the lead singer/guitarist of Foo Fighters and now as the drummer of Queens of the Stone Age. Both of Grohl’s ventures have enjoyed recent success with the Foos releasing their fourth (and best received) album to date, “One by One,” and QOTSA’s “Songs for the Deaf” topping modern rock charts and year-end critics’ lists. Both bands have also been nominated for Grammys.

QOTSA, in fact, can be considered somewhat of a supergroup, boasting not only Grohl, but also Mark Lanegan (ex-Screaming Trees frontman), Josh Homme (ex-Kyuss guitarist), Nick Olivieri (ex-Dwarves bassist) and Troy Van Leeuwen (ex-Failure/A Perfect Circle guitarist).

ZWAN, Billy Corgan’s (ex-Smashing Pumpkins) new project and the latest in this rock star-recycling trend, released its debut album “Mary Star of the Sea” last Tuesday. Jimmy Chamberlain, who was kicked out of the Pumpkins in 1996 for substance abuse, is on drums, while the lineup is rounded out by ex-Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney, guitarist David Pajo (Slint and Tortoise) and Paz Lenchatin (A Perfect Circle) on bass. Corgan’s brand of avant-rock is extremely recognizable, and echoes of the Pumpkins permeate ZWAN’s debut. Corgan’s new project is more harmonious and less preoccupied with sonic gymnastics, no longer centering songs on trademark one-minute guitar solos, but instead welcoming input from the accompanying seasoned musicians. Lenchatin adds rich backing vocals (something ex-Pumpkins bassist D’Arcy Wretsky was never fully allowed to do) while the inclusion of three guitars rounds out the sound without becoming overbearing.

The only problem with ZWAN, is the nagging suspicion that in opting for a more democratic approach to music-making, Corgan has sacrificed the independent vision that made the Pumpkins such an influential act. While “Mary Star of the Sea” is a good album, it is in no way as revolutionary or accomplished as “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” the Pumpkins’ two-disc opus and last foray into greatness. Instead, “Mary” sounds more like the last Pumpkins’ album, “Machina/Machines of God,” in its attempt to grasp at greatness and come just short of it.

The first single, “Honestly,” is a fair indication of the rest of the material on the album. With lyrics such as, “I believe you mean the best that life can bring,” Corgan rejects “sadness” with optimism.