REVIEW: Ammonia, Mint 400 (Epic)

If you listen to modern rock stations, you may have already heard Ammonia’s catchiest song, “Drugs” as in “Drugs and money… but there’s nothing, I’m gonna do about it”. If you like it and generally like a kind of generic grunge sound (read: Bush and non-“Santa Monica” Everclear), then this CD may be up your alley. I recommend you go to HMV or some other store that will let you preview a few of these tracks, such as the catchy “Drugs”, “In A Box”, and “Mint 400”. Ammonia is a sturdy Nirvana-style trio that efficiently supplies a fix of the grunge formula. You should also stop reading this review here.

The cover of Mint 400 is a toy racing car and an old-fashioned hand-drawn looking “Ammonia” logo. There should be something charming and human about this. The fact that it looks terribly calculated and charmless is really sad. The question of Ammonia’s true feelings and expressiveness is almost irrelevant. Any originality that Ammonia possesses is crushed under the steamroller of the grunge formula. To be precise, nearly every song involves a quiet and melodic part that is then played with buzzing power chords again at a loud volume. This is the musical equivalent of the advertising fad of really muscular men holding babies, and just as insincere sounding. Of course, the steamroller rolls both ways, and it’s the formula that has gotten them airplay and exposure. Also, the formula works because it does appeal to some people and give them what they want/need. There seems to be a certain integrity to the singing, and the players play with skill.

But, everything about this record is tinged with artifice, and this may be a direct result of sticking too closely to the grunge formula. “Guns… and money” they sing in less than a snarl, but the danger there seems ridiculous. “I’ve been waiting so long…” they complain vaguely in “Ken Carter”; “Sleepwalking… soul searching”, they mutter. “You say I’m easy now, but I don’t think so”. Ammonia knows how to find a repeatable phrase and they know how to fill out the template.

But to my ears, it is impossible to make true sounding music with this formula in this time and musical context. Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero were passionate and expressive in their way when they came out, but that was in a totally different context. Even Kurt Cobain was sick to death of this formula after In Utero. This tells me that he understood that after the huge popularity of those two records, it is nearly impossible to write in this genre anymore without automatically sounding fake and derivative, just like playing the psychedelic-sound after Sgt. Pepper, or going disco in the late 70’s after Saturday Night Fever. I hope with their success, and I do believe these guys will be popular, that they find a musical space to play and sing with an honest voice.