Song: "Scentless Apprentice"
Album: In Utero
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In many cases, when a band finds themselves suddenly in the spotlight, the band members begin to question whether they did something different on the song that brought them fame, and perhaps whether they may have lost sight of the music they originally wanted to create. Most of the time, this involves the band members looking back to their inspirations, and using their next record to attempt to redefine the sound with which they want to be associated. When one looks at the long list of bands who have done just this, there are few who so perfectly exemplified the term "overnight sensation" or who made such and effort to redefine their sound as "Generation X" icons, Nirvana. After being vaulted to the status of "generation spokesmen" on the power of their culture-shifting hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the trio attempted to completely alienate their audience by delivering one of the most brutal and uncompromising albums in history in the form of 1993's In Utero. An album packed with unrelenting, powerful, punk-based riffs and some of the darkest and most telling lyrics in history, Nirvana gave it all they had to shed their "pop friendly" image, and the fans that came with such a stamp. For the most part, their efforts worked, yet one cannot overlook the fact that In Utero still contains some of the bands' finest moments, and there is perhaps no song that better defines everything Nirvana stood for than the crushing, yet stunning song, "Scentless Apprentice."
On many levels, "Scentless Apprentice" is a song that is all about revealing the influences on the band, and from the lyrics to the production, there is far more than meets the eye. All of In Utero was produced by the great Steve Albini, and it is on this song that one can hear the reason why the band insisted on his help. It was no secret that Kurt Cobain was a massive Pixies fan, and on "Scentless Apprentice," the sonic quality is easily the closest Nirvana ever got to their heroes, and one can hear a similarity between the song and the classic Pixies track, "Bone Machine," especially within the sound of the drumming. "Scentless Apprentice" is without question one of Nirvana's most aggressive songs, and the opening drumming from Dave Grohl is wonderfully menacing, setting the perfect mood for the song. The rest of the music kicks in with full force from the start, and it never slows down or loses steam, creating a mood that is almost unsettling at times. The band absolutely pummels the listener, as the screaming chords from Cobain's guitar, coupled with the driving bass of Krist Novoselic creates one of the most violent, yet controlled sonic chaos that has ever been recorded. Throughout the entire song, it seems as if the band could descend into mayhem at any moment, yet there is an amazing, firm structure within this musical pandemonium. Filled with feedback and screaming, one can easily make the case that "Scentless Apprentice" is exactly the sound for which Nirvana wished to be known.
Alongside the pulverizing wall of sound that defines "Scentless Apprentice," Cobain gives one of the most disturbing and forbidding vocal performances not only of his career, but in the entire history of music. His caterwauling screams work not only within the overall mood of the song, but one can make a case that it was through the vocals on the first few songs of In Utero that Cobain was trying to yell directly at his audience. It is in this moment that one realizes that Cobain had completely left behind any thoughts on trying to make a record that both pleased his musical wants, as well as having "pop appeal," and it is clear that he decided to completely ignore the latter, making for what one can see as the truly "authentic" Nirvana sound. Yet it is within the lyrics of "Scentless Apprentice" that one can easily find the inspiration, as the words and title are a clear reference to Patrick Süskind's novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Following the tale of a man who is born with no body odor, yet possessing a highly sensitive sense of smell, the main character attempts to make the "ultimate" perfume by killing virgin women and "taking" their scent. In as much as one could sum up the story in a three minute punk-metal throw-down, Cobain succeeds, and yet it is still the way in which he delivers the vocals that completely overshadows what is contained within the songs' words.
Rarely does a band make as conscious an attempt to push their audience away as one finds on Nirvana's In Utero. Clearly, the group was questioning whether their breakthrough album, Nevermind, was true to the spirit of the band that they created, and the follow-up record is one of the loudest and most authentically hostile records ever recorded. The record is front-loaded with a string of thundering, confrontational songs, and yet it is clear that this was the music the band truly enjoyed playing. For a number of reasons, "Scentless Apprentice" stands out from the rest of the songs, as among other aspects, it is the only song on the record that gives writing credit to the entire band, as opposed to only Cobain. Presenting a sound that is more adversarial than almost anything else ever recorded, Nirvana makes their roots in punk and hardcore abundantly clear, and create as much distance as they can between this song and the string of unlikely hits that brought them fame. From the unrelenting battering from Dave Grohl's drums to the sonic warfare of the bass and guitars, "Scentless Apprentice" remains one of the most stunning moments in Nirvana's catalog, and it perfectly defines the group in many ways. Cobain's wailing, almost haunting vocal track also stands as an ideal example of the style for which he wanted to be remembered, and the overall feel of the song remains one of the finest moments in the history of the band. Though there were singles off of In Utero that were far more successful, one would be hard pressed to find a more accurate example of the direction in which the band was heading than on the tremendously aggressive, yet controlled chaos of "Scentless Apprentice."