Arriving during the very height of the grunge movement in September 1992, Stone Temple Pilots’ landmark debut record ‘Core’ was an unexpected commercial success, scoring the San Diego quartet three hit singles on the modern rock chart and catapulting them into nationwide popularity almost overnight.
Characterised by Scott Weiland’s baritone howl and Dean DeLeo’s distorted, chorus-heavy walls of guitar, ‘Core’ is undoubtedly an album very much of its time, as its 12 tracks see the band crash out of the gates at its heaviest, angriest and most straightforward. Indeed, apart from a few sporadic quiet moments – such as the dirge-like, country-tinged ballad ‘Creep’ and Doors-y lounge interlude ‘Wet My Bed’ – STP’s first outing makes for a fairly oppressive listen throughout, and is perhaps their only release that could truly be filed as grunge before their penchant for psychedelic experimentation was established on subsequent albums ‘Purple’ and ‘Tiny Music…’.
Opener and enduring fan favourite ‘Dead & Bloated’ works as something of a mission statement and quickly establishes the album’s tone, with Weiland snarling one of his trademark morbidly cryptic couplets – “I am smelling like the rose that somebody gave me on my birthday deathbed/I am smelling like the rose that somebody gave me ‘coz I’m dead and bloated” – through a megaphone before a snaking, Black Sabbath-esque riff kicks off the song proper.
The song finds the young Weiland examining his paranoia regarding his own eventual mortality – “I run through the world thinking ‘bout tomorrow”, he repeats, almost obsessively – whilst observing how happier, less tortured individuals are able to maintain sanity by mostly denying their own (“you can’t swallow what I’m thinking”, he warns listeners). It’s an undeniably heavy choice of topic for a 25-year-old’s opening gambit, though one that’s nevertheless eclipsed by the even-more-abrasive following track, the band’s brutal first single ‘Sex Type Thing’.
Featuring a muscular, cascading power chord riff and a menacing, nightmarish vocal performance, ‘Sex Type Thing’ landed the band in hot water after its satirical, staunchly anti-rape message was misconstrued as promoting both sexual harassment and the very sense of entitlement it set out to mock. The song’s deeply sinister lyrics – “I’m gonna get next to you/you wouldn’t want me to have to hurt you too”, with an ominous, predatory refrain that simply repeats “here I come”– were inspired by an abusive incident suffered by an ex-girlfriend of Weiland’s, and its hyper-masculine musical backdrop was intended as a send-up of heavy metal jock culture. Much to the band’s bewilderment and despite the intentional exaggeration for effect, though, the joke was ultimately lost on many in the press and media: “I never thought that people would ever seriously think I was an advocate of date rape”, Weiland would later opine.
Elsewhere, ‘Wicked Garden’ is a powerful, hazy alternative rock workout that benefits from DeLeo’s chugging, multi-tracked guitar assault, while the groove-laden ‘Naked Sunday’ contains elements of unhinged funk metal and urgent rocker – and perennial live staple -‘Crackerman’ sees Weiland unload a stream-of-consciousness rant over Eric Kretz’s powerhouse drums and a driving, unfussy riff.
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The criminally underrated ‘Piece of Pie’, meanwhile, mixes punishing, grinding verses filled with oblique allusions to Weiland’s personal demons (“I broke the breadline/nobody knows/I walked the frontline/still got far to go”, he croons demonically) with a spectacular arena rock chorus that’s so bombastic you begin to get the feeling the narrator has almost began celebrating his own loss of innocence and descent into apathy.
The true highlight of ‘Core’, however, is the majestic, Grammy award-winning ‘Plush’, which remains the best thing Stone Temple Pilots ever recorded and one of the defining singles of the grunge era. Based around Robert DeLeo’s jazzy ragtime bassline and a bed of shimmering, orchestrated guitar chords, the wistful track was inspired by a news report of a missing woman that was a major story in the band’s native San Diego around the time of the album’s creation.
However, even though Weiland’s pensive lyrics use the victim’s gruesome demise as a metaphor for a dying relationship – “when the dogs do find her/will she smell alone?”, he worries throughout – the song somehow manages to take an uplifting, quietly optimistic tone for its show-stopping climax, as he reassures both himself and the listener that despite everything, he’s still “got time to wait for tomorrow/time to find it”.
‘Core’ heavily polarised audiences upon release, with some praising the album’s attempt at a return to the conceptual, album-oriented type of rock music of the 1970s, whilst others simply dismissed the band as cynical Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains imitators – Weiland’s deep, powerful bellow in particular was singled out as being similar to that of fellow grunge frontmen Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley. Opinion was so split, in fact, that Stone Temple Pilots were simultaneously voted best and worst new band by Rolling Stone magazine’s readers and critics, respectively.
Despite the initial mixed reviews, ‘Core’ would eventually be certified eight times platinum and remainsthe band’s most commercial successful offering. It has slowly grown in critical standing since its release, with many retrospective assessments of the recent 25th anniversary edition praising the band’s chemistry and viewing the album as a worthy launch pad for their later, more musically ambitious works.
Stone Temple Pilots would go on to release better albums – the sprawling follow-up ‘Purple’ and the eclectic neo-psychedelia of ‘Tiny Music…’ in particular saw the band reach their creative stride – but never one as immediate or cohesive as ‘Core’.