Is “grunge” an actual genre of music or was it merely a marketing term for a disparate slate of bands, mostly from the Pacific Northwest, in the 1990s? An argument in favor of grunge as an actual viable genre that transcends a specific time and place is that “grunge” is easily the best, shortest description for the sound of Reno rock trio Merkin.
On its new seven-song disc, Bread & Circus, the group combines Melvins-inspired metal—slow, heavy, occasionally droning, often melodic—with dramatic two-part vocal harmonies lead by bassist Dane DeLucchi’s dread-filled baritone. In other words, they kind of sound like Alice in Chains. Enjoyment of the group’s well-constructed songs requires a high tolerance for the deep, post-Pearl Jam lockjaw singing style—a potentially enjoyable vocal approach that became clichéd by the million wannabe Nirvanas flooding mainstream rock in the late ’90s. But DeLucchi seems to know what he’s doing and employs his voice artfully, occasionally evoking Berlin-era David Bowie and, yes, Nirvana.
Drummer Jeremy Morrow drives the music forward with a musical style of barely contained aggression, and guitarist Alan Burton plays with a laidback serenity that contrasts nicely with the angsty rhythm section. Burton’s multi-tracked guitar noodles on “Strangers Passing By” are lovely and evocative, one of the best purely musical moments on the record.
Bread & Circus is the type of album that sounds monotonous at first listen, but then reveals itself to be diverse and surprising after repeated listens, once the listener becomes acclimatized to its lowly, dirty, grungy altitude.
Where Merkin evokes Dirt-era Alice in Chains, Kadence aims squarely at Radiohead’s The Bends. Tyler Tholen and Shawn Sariti’s guitars shimmer with delay and reverb, and the melodies and chord progressions move forward with classicist logic.
The group’s new self-titled EP sounds like a rotating cast of guest vocalists sitting in with Radiohead circa 1995. “Pride” sounds like Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters, singing “Planet Telex.”
Ryan James’ piano and keyboards add nice textures, and Ford Corl’s bass tone and performance on “Socialite” is fantastic. Drummer Jeff Nicholson plays well, but his contributions to the songs are badly served on the EP. The drums sound tiny—like a toy kit played in a closet.
Still, overall, it’s a good EP. The music is epic in scope and polite in execution—like nice guys playing music their girlfriends will enjoy. Nothing wrong with that.