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Thursday, October 21, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Around The Sound -- There's More To Northwest Rock Than Nirvana

Duff McKagan, the Seattle guy in Guns 'N Roses, has just released his first solo album, "Believe in Me" (Geffen), and it should boost his image considerably.

Always in the shadow of Axl and Slash in G'NR, he steps out front with this disc and proves he's more than just a sideman. He can write, he can sing, he can play guitar, bass and drums, he knows how to use guest stars (sparingly, to enhance a song rather than embellish it), and his music doesn't sound like G'NR at all.

McKagan can rock with the best of them, as he shows on the hard-driving "Trouble" (with guest vocal by Sebastian Bach), an angry tirade called "The Majority" (with a strong vocal by Lenny Kravitz) and especially "Beyond Belief," featuring the great guitarist Jeff Beck, who also appears on the bluesy "Swamp Song."

But McKagan is also comfortable in other styles, including the Stones/Jagger-influenced "I Love You" and the call-and-response "Believe in Me."

Although musically the disc is first-rate, it's the writing that's the most impressive. Even studded with obscenities, the lyrics are thoughtful and poetic. Several songs deal with the pressures and inanities of being in a global rock band; others have to do with love and desire, and wanting to be wild and free while facing maturity and responsibilities.

For once, a side project by a member of a monster band has proven to be more than just an exercise in vanity. Duff McKagan is more than just the bass player in Guns 'N Roses. He's a full-blown talent in his own right.

The success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam started a signing frenzy of Seattle bands by major labels, and now those discs are starting to flood the market, with uneven results. Here are some reviews of new Northwest rock releases.

Listening to "Houdini," the major-label debut of the Melvins on Atlantic Records, it's easy to see why this former Aberdeen rock group (now based in San Francisco) inspired a young Kurt Cobain to take up the guitar.

This band is fascinated by sound - not just music, but the random rhythms and noises of civilization, from machinery to sirens to electronic feedback. The Melvins incorporate such sounds into its thick, hard-driving, often surprising music.

Long an underground favorite, the Melvins have released six albums, nine EPs, several singles, and have even been bootlegged, but "Houdini" is a departure. The music is crisper and more accessible, and the vocals, while still gruff, are easier to comprehend.

But while the production is more polished, the band hasn't compromised its vision. Its unconventional sound collages, extended drum solos and dense musical assaults are interesting, but will keep the Melvins in the alternative fold, unlike their acolyte Cobain (who's one of this album's producers.)

"Hater" (A&M Records) is a one-time-only side project of drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden, joined by ex-Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain, vocalist Brian Wood of the Fire Ants, keyboardist Glen Slater of the Walkabouts and several other Seattle musicians.

It has the loose, playful, all-for-fun feeling of a garage jam, except these guys can play. The nine songs range from the rocking, dance-inducing "Circles" to the '60s-sounding, '90s-attitude, darkly funny "Who Do I Kill" to the long, hypnotic "Sad McBain" and the hilarious country hoedown, "Blistered."

Flop's "Whenever You're Ready" (Epic/Frontier), is another playful, tuneful, fun-time rock record, with impressive musicianship and solid tunes.

Nobody will mistake this for grunge, but it is in the Northwest tradition of fun-loving rock. Actually the style most resembles that of Cheap Trick - energetic, well-played rock imbued with tradition but full of youthful energy and swagger.

There's a lot of variety in this disc, from the spacey "En Route to the Unified Field Theory," featuring cello, to the rocking "Night of the Hunter." An interesting cut called "Julie Francaville" may or may not be about a certain local TV news anchor. Another song with a local angle is "Port Angeles."

Flop may well be the Next Big Thing to come out of Seattle.

Then there are the generic bands that lucked out because they're from here. Best Kissers in the World's "Been There" (MCA) is aptly named - it's a throwback to the era of the Heats and the Cowboys, with competent but unremarkable new wave. "Wallflower" by My Sister's Machine (Elektra/Chameleon) is journeyman metal, well-done but undistinguished.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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