Although the party line is that the ascent of grunge in the ’90s ruined American heavy metal, the truth is that the two fed off each other throughout the decade. The first wave of grunge bands — Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains — was pretty heavily indebted to the muscular riffs of metal. It’s arguable that underground noise-rock giants like Unsane, Today Is the Day and the Jesus Lizard wouldn’t have existed without the two genres’ feedback loop, and even the mid-’90s resurgence of stoner metal fed equally off Sabbath doom and drugged-out slacker apathy.
The English quartet End of Level Boss formed more than a decade after Nirvana flannel-ized the mainstream, but its sophomore LP, Inside the Difference Engine, flings itself into the negative space betwixt metal and grunge like it’s 1994 all over again. The lunkheaded riffs and psychedelic guitar leads of “Mr. Dinosaur Is Lost” and “End of Line” get at the vaguely sexy heaviness that Soundgarden perfected on Badmotorfinger; “Reticence” yanks freely from a grab bag of clipped Helmet riffs. Leading man Heck Armstrong’s flexible baritone is a doppelganger for Layne Staley’s, and the “chamber of lost souls” vocal harmonies on “Words Have No Meaning” link End of Level Boss with Alice in Chains even more explicitly.
There’s a dissonant edge to Inside the Difference Engine that keeps it from coming off as pure nostalgia. The mechanical crunch of “Corners” and especially the closing instrumental “Connortations” tightens up flabby grunge riffs for the Botox era, with a digital vibe you might expect from a band named after a hallowed video-game tradition. Not to say that End of Level Boss would sound out of place on the early Sub Pop or Amphetamine Reptile rosters, but Inside the Difference Engine offers a pleasurable kick in the pants for the heavy-rock enthusiast of the now, regardless of what was in your tape deck in the ’90s.