Well, it’s been a very long week since the untimely demise of Chris Cornell, and in that time frame I’ve listened to almost nothing but Soundgarden. I took a break to listen to Temple of the Dog from time to time, I even listened to some Audioslave who are still as pedestrian and average as ever. Satan help me, I even listened to some Chris Cornell solo work. But not Scream, I’m not that into torturing myself and that will be an album best left forgotten by time. My last article really had a distinct lack of discussion on the actual music of Soundgarden, and that is because the follow-up articles for “Soundgarden Week” (which will obviously take longer than one week to compose and publish) are there for that purpose. As I said before, I could fill a book or make one of those ten-hour Youtube videos discussing the merits of “Slaves and Bulldozers” or “4th of July” alone, so I’ll attempt to remain as brief and succinct as possible in this article. This article is a fond look back on the rich, robust discography of Soundgarden. I’ll limit this to Soundgarden, since I’m admittedly a hard-core fan compared to being very unenthusiastic toward Audioslave or Cornell’s solo output in the years after the original Soundgarden break-up. There’s no need to go trashing Scream any longer, since the funniest bashing was already written by Trent Reznor in 2009.
So in the spirit of keeping things concise, I’m going to pass up early EP’s like Screaming Life or FOPP, since I’ve actually never even heard them outside of listening on Youtube at random over the course of the past week. Screaming Life had “Hunted Down” on it, there’s your review of those. Soundgarden emerged in 1984 with a lineup of Chris Cornell on drums (yes, seriously, he started as the drummer), Kim Thayil on guitar and some dude named Hiro Yamamoto on bass who contributed to the early songwriting quite a bit. Through the mid-eighties, they would build up a reputation in Seattle along with fellow bands Melvins and Screaming Trees, as well as some precursors to Pearl Jam like Malfunkshun. Soundgarden were one of the originators of what would later be known as grunge, but in their early work, there really wasn’t much of the “grunge”/alternative rock sound. Melvins were obviously always a metal band, being a significant influence upon not only the Seattle scene but also later profoundly influential metal scenes/genres like the N.O.L.A. sludge and stoner metal scene in the early 1990’s. Soundgarden in their early days were very much more of a metal band than anything else, though there was always this creeping off-kilter aspect to it that defined them as something outside of just the metal category. Also let’s not forget that in their early days, metal meant total fucking garbage like Motley Crue and Van Halen to your average uninformed listener. In 1986, Matt Cameron joined as drummer and Chris focused on vocals and guitar instead.
So we’ll start with UltraMega OK, the second album with “OK” in the title that would come to your mind if asked to name an album with “OK” in its title.
Ultramega OK is in fact the only Soundgarden album released on an independent label, the Seattle staple Sub Pop. I’m not going to ramble about Sub Pop’s significance, but they’re still around today so that should illustrate it. I linked the brand new 2017 remastered edition above, since Sub Pop are cool enough to let anyone stream it on their own Youtube channel, but to be honest, I’ll take the less defined and murkier sound of the original issue over the new one. Ultramega OK is quite different from any other Soundgarden album, these guys were definitely still finding their strengths here and the result is a sprawl that is gloriously sloppy in execution but tight as erect dick skin elsewhere. “Flower” opens things up with a bit of a delirious take on hard rock that sounds like the early “alternative metal” of say, Jane’s Addiction. That was kind of the only reference point out there for stuff that sounded like this in 1988. But then we have “Beyond the Wheel”, which starts as a mumbling grimace only to explode into a fucking vocal powerhouse from Mr. Cornell. I mean, goddamn, listen to him belt it out on the chorus of that one. That was going to end up the most defining and stark feature of Soundgarden in the first half of their career up until the grunge explosion. Chris Cornell could fucking wail with the best of them in his time, and really the only singers doing this out of Seattle at the time were lame bands like Heart or Queensryche. Cornell provided the siren of a voice over his and Thayil’s heavy, downtrodden yet psychedelic guitar style, and this is what set Soundgarden apart in these early times. As for the rest of the album, well “Incessant Mace” at the end is also pretty bad-fucking-ass and shows where Soundgarden would be heading toward later on, but this album is probably my least favorite Soundgarden studio album. It’s a young band finding their way. Also, whoever the hell let Hiro Yamamoto have lead vocals on a song made a huge mistake.
At a time when Nirvana was playing in a garage in Aberdeen, Washington, Alice in Chains was a glam metal band, and Pearl Jam weren’t even an idea, Soundgarden was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy award already with Ultramega OK. Let that one sink in.
So then, in 1989, Soundgarden went on to become the first band of their scene to make a major label record deal. Louder Than Love was released on September 5, 1989 on the A&M Records label, where it ended up climbing into the Billboard Top 200 chart for a peak of #108 in 1990. That was extremely successful for them in 1990, by far the most successful album out of the Seattle grunge scene at the time too. That’s even more successful when you take into account their single was “Hands All Over”, a 6 minute hazy psychedelic headbanging riffer that culminates in a shouted peaking chorus of “Kill your mother” over and over again, which again back in 1990 was not going to fly on the radio or MTV. “Hands All Over” is of course a timeless Soundgarden classic that sounds as fresh, urgent and lyrically relevant today as it did back then. “Kill your mother” obviously refers to the Earth and the effects of pollution and rampant consumption, but then again I don’t think anyone reading this doesn’t know this Soundgarden song or any of the other ones I’m going to talk about.
For the tour, Hiro Yamamoto left and that made way for Jason Everman, a man who not only was in Nirvana for a short time but appeared on the Bleach album cover. Jason Everman also eventually left and that led to the joining of Ben Shepherd, Soundgarden’s bassist ever since and the guy generally considered as THE Soundgarden bassist. Jason Everman on the other hand has the claim to fame of being the only person in a band with both Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell as the singer, no wonder the guy left a music career for the military. Back to Louder Than Love, this is an album that has no problem letting you know this is big dick swinging, head banging, beer swilling late 80’s metal. But it’s not in the same approach or aspect as the mainstream butt rock hair metal of the time, it even parodies and makes fun of that whole style with the joke “Big Dumb Sex” and “Full on Kevin’s Mom” songs. The slowed down heavy metal riffs all over the album are really what make it all come together with Cornell’s voice, but this was another one of the aspects of Soundgarden’s sound that would drastically change over time. The lyrics on some of this album are trying to be edgy for their time but they’re also very smartly written for how it all sounds together as a band; “Hands All Over” is an anti-pollution song getting it’s message heard by yelling “Kill your mother” over and over like an 80’s P.M.R.C. nightmare while “Gun” is well, yeah, heavy riffs with Cornell shrieking “Shoot shoot shoot” all the time in the chorus. “Get on the Snake” has some really weird and cool stuff musically going on, but there’s a huge late 1980’s style rock in that song for sure. And “Loud Love” sounds fucking great with that riff and voice, but who in the fuck knows what that song is supposed to be about lyrically. There’s definitely this late 80’s style about Louder Than Love that isn’t there on pretty much anything else they did. It’s very primitive “alternative metal” from the era of Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More and like, Living Colour or some shit like that. Soundgarden predated all the other big 4 grunge bands which is why I keep mentioning that Kurt Cobain was releasing Bleach at this same time and Alice in Chains changed their sound to what you’d call grunge by now but Facelift ends up having a very similar vibe to Louder Than Love. The big 80’s metal sound is actually there in the songwriting context, while the content is the complete opposite of what you’d have in that sound. Very unique stuff that is memorable and quite good.
So then, after Chris Cornell’s roommate Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose in early 1990, there was Temple of the Dog. Temple of the Dog is two things now in 2017: It’s a Pearl Jam album with Chris Cornell as lead vocalist and is an album of a now dead guy talking about his then dead and now still deceased friend, making Temple of the Dog largely two dead men talking to each other in death now. Temple of the Dog has Chris Cornell with Matt Cameron on drums, who is now in Pearl Jam, and then the other members of Pearl Jam while introducing new special guest vocalist Eddie Vedder. Let’s look at it like the Dr. Dre – Snoop Dogg relationship a few years later with The Chronic and Doggystyle, to make a funny comparison. What’s absolutely not funny is this album, this album is goddamn incredibly good and I have to bring this one up even though I said I wasn’t doing any side projects. Here, we’ve got Chris Cornell basically assembling the Pearl Jam debut album with himself on vocals in the wake of his friend’s death, with that friend’s band and their future singer as the guest vocalist.
Now it’s highly debatable, but on the Temple of the Dog album, Chris Cornell may have peaked with his best vocal performance. There’s going to be a debate here since Badmotorfinger is up next, and that one definitely deserves mentioning of its powerhouse vocals, but on Temple of the Dog there’s a certain diversity to the music and the mournful subject matter that just meshes so well with Chris’ intense delivery. It’s pure motherfucking magic, as a couple of dumb clowns would later put it. Listening to Temple of the Dog now, it’s fucking hard not to feel sad when you take into account the “dead guy sings about dead guy” aspect of this album in 2017. Another especially hard one to give a listen to these days is the 2015 concert where Chris Cornell performed Layne Staley’s vocals for a Mad Season reunion set, since this is now “dead guy sings other dead guy’s songs”. But back to the Temple of the Dog record, this is a proto-supergroup that operates at an intense level emotionally and musically. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” is an amazing tribute to Andrew Wood, and “Reach Down” sprawls out over 11 minutes giving equal showcasing to Cornell and the guitar work of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready before they’d ever lay down a note on an actual Pearl Jam record. And then there’s “Hunger Strike”, any other band making this song would sound preachy and cheesy, but with Cornell and newcomer Eddie Vedder teaming up for the duet it instead becomes a milestone of “grunge” and an all-time classic still fondly remembered to this day. The slow build-up around the repetitive minor chords works great, and this song absolutely explodes when the hook hits. Cornell and Vedder’s vocal team-up here is beyond praise, it’s got to be THE all-star dream-team duet of the entire “grunge” back catalogue. “Call Me a Dog”, “Times of Trouble”, “Wooden Jesus” and “Your Savior” are also some amazing tracks that you should definitely check out from Temple of the Dog. They were certainly a “moment in time” sort of band that united with one purpose back in 1990, to pay tribute to Andrew Wood, but since then they’ve sporadically reunited every time Cornell took to the stage at a Pearl Jam concert and later did their only tour in 2016, just before Cornell’s death in early 2017.
Now while Temple of the Dog laid down the template for Pearl Jam and “grunge” in general, when Cornell returned to the studio with Soundgarden for their next album and first of the 1990’s, the difference in sound is literally day and night. Badmotorfinger was released on September 24, 1991, the same day as Nevermind by Nirvana and just a month after the Pearl Jam debut album TEN. Badmotorfinger could not be further from the sound of those albums, as this was very much a bonafide, capital M-E-T-A-L heavy fucking metal record. The album was produced by Terry Date, who would go on to produce the works of Pantera, White Zombie and Deftones later in the 1990’s and even produced Slayer’s most recent album Repentless. Before I go about hailing Terry Date as an untouchable producer though, I’ll remind everyone he also produced Limp Bizkit and Staind albums, so yeah… also, if there is one thing I will complain about in regards to Badmotorfinger, it’s the production values. This album suffers from having a very basic heavy metal production approach, it’s clear enough in the opening drums to “Rusty Cage” that those should sound like the firing squad from hell instead of the thin rattle they come off as on record. That aside, this is a nearly untouchable album that’s every bit as heavy and crushing as the best metal had to offer back in 1991 and really shouldn’t be called “grunge” at all. Hell, the only slow song is all the way at track #9 and even the two songs afterwards revert back to the heavy metal power-crush attack. The first single here was the 6 minute monolithic beatdown “Jesus Christ Pose”, and yet again, it was subjected to a lot of controversy because of the time period it was released in. A music video in which a girl gets tied to a cross and shots of people crucifying vegetables and barbed wires would not even get a bat of the eye in 2017, but in 1991 this was enough to get banned from MTV. MTV banned “Jesus Christ Pose”, once again proving how fucking stupid the decision making process of MTV really is. And while some old fogies like to proclaim “grunge” as the death of heavy metal, how in the fuck could someone listen to “Jesus Christ Pose” and not proclaim it as one of the heaviest things in existence? “Jesus Christ Pose” is one of the greatest metal songs ever laid down, period. That motherfucker should have your head banging from note 1 to the fading crackles of the bass at the end of the song. What really drives this song isn’t just Kim Thayil’s excellent guitar work or the impressive drumming of Matt Cameron, but the absolute wail of Chris Cornell’s vocal performance here. This is peak Cornell, he is going to use his voice alone to strip the paint off every wall in your house, and then blow the whole fucking thing to the ground before it’s all over. The same can basically be said for every vocal performance on the Badmotorfinger record.
If “Jesus Christ Pose” wasn’t enough for you though, well then there’s “Slaves and Bulldozers”, which gets the dubious honor of final Soundgarden song ever performed. “Slaves and Bulldozers” is another song that just has everything going at full 100 in all departments, a true contender for one of the best songs in music history. The riffing and guitar work, the bass lines, the drumming, Cornell’s wail reaching a frenzied pitch with the chorus, it just might be Soundgarden’s greatest achievement. And I haven’t even mentioned the other 10 songs on the record yet! “Rusty Cage” starts things off with it’s immediate, unique riff that is just catchy as all hell before unleashing the power when Cornell comes in swinging, belting it out in finest form. “Outshined”, well everybody knows that one and if you don’t, why the hell are you even still reading this. “Face Pollution” and “Somewhere” are kind of more basic than the preceding songs, and showcase Ben Shepherd’s composition skills as he wrote these ones, handling everything including lyrics on the latter.
So the other extended, epic banger on Badmotorfinger is “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, which starts out with a great intro that injects some much needed humor to this intense record. A guy talks about cows moo-ing and chickens crowing like a children’s television show host before saying “the devil says…”, enter Chris Cornell wailing like a madman. Actually, his vocals are a little more subdued here for 1991, peak-era Chris Cornell, opting to wail high in the pre-chorus instead. The riff here is yet another heavy as hell headbanger that’s guaranteed to make your neck sore long before the song is even over. “Room A Thousand Years Wide” also features a nice beefy metal riff, this song is Kim Thayil and Matt Cameron’s composition and was released as a single long before the album in 1990, but here it gets an update with a spastic, weird saxaphone solo inserted toward the end. Things get mellow for a short moment with “Mind Riot”, the lone slow song here that hearkens toward where Soundgarden were going next with it’s eastern influenced guitar work. Cornell definitely contributes an amazing vocal performance on this song, and the mournful lyrics seem much darker now in the post-Cornell world. “Drawing Flies” isn’t any less dark or morbid now either, but it’s a short song that gets it’s morose point across quickly when compared with the lengthier compositions on the album. Closing out Badmotorfinger is a pair of religion and society bashing heavy headbangers in “Holy Water” and “New Damage”, just listen to the way Cornell sings “Holy water’s rusting me” or “Get out before you drown” in those choruses, it’s classic, absolute peak Cornell doing what he does best. Even the verses of “New Damage” rely on that powerhouse of a wail, communicating such limited and simple lyrics in gloriously boisterous fashion. Badmotorfinger is unquestionable in it’s greatness, and would very easily be any band’s peak work if it were released by anyone else. But Soundgarden is Soundgarden, never anything like them before or since, so it’s only fair that they had a major shift in sound and came out at their very best.
Since Soundgarden cemented themselves as being one of the hottest bands in the world with Badmotorfinger, they of course began getting much better touring options. Guns n’ Roses selected Soundgarden as opening band for the Use Your Illusion tour. Along with Faith No More, Soundgarden went on to open up for the infamous Metallica and Guns n’ Roses stadium tour, the one that featured roughly as many riots as it did tour dates. Soundgarden headlined Lollapalooza 1992 along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Ice Cube and Pearl Jam as well. They filmed a sold out Seattle show in March 1992 and released it later that year, titled Motorvision. Soundgarden also picked a then-unknown band from their record label A&M to open their own headlining tour, and that band was stoner metal pioneers Monster Magnet. One thing I’ve seen in more recent years is a categorization of Soundgarden as “stoner metal” online, and being influential in that scene of music due to their slowed down riffs and Black Sabbath worship. While yes, no other grunge band had the Led Zeppelin meets Black Sabbath hybridization of sound down pat like Soundgarden did, I don’t think we can lump Soundgarden in with bands like Sleep, Monster Magnet or Kyuss at all. It’s almost as dumb as lumping them and Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains or Nirvana together actually, but then again Dave Grohl was fervently citing Kyuss as the “future of grunge” in 1992 as well. Is stoner metal just another form of “grunge”? Who knows, who cares really. Soundgarden were never just a metal band, and they would then be moving forward and expanding their sonic horizons on their next album to a crowning achievement effect.
Mozart. Ludwig Van. Superunknown. I could fill an entire book on the merits of Superunknown alone. Released in 1994 at the height of the grunge phenomenon, Soundgarden’s fourth album represents an achievement of not just music, but humanity itself. This is by far my favorite Soundgarden album, and in my opinion one of the greatest albums of all time. With Superunknown, Soundgarden began expanding their sonic palate into alternative rock and come out sounding more traditionally “grunge” rather than the balls-out metallic fury of Badmotorfinger. That’s not to say that there is a lack of heavy guitars here, they’re loud and proudly on display in Superunknown as well, but they’ve taken a back seat to exploring the quirks and nuances of Soundgarden’s more adventurous material. An aspect of Badmotorfinger that I had lamented was the production, but with Superunknown and producer Michael Beinhorn, the end result is one of the best production jobs on record I’ve ever heard. When a deluxe 20th anniversary box set edition of Superunknown was released, it included a remastered version of the album which was said to be inferior to the original, and having heard both, I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The remaster is brickwalled to death in the wake of the loudness war which occurred after the original album’s release. At seventy minutes and fifteen tracks, Superunknown has a lot of ground to cover and has all the density of a neutron star. There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s get going…
So for a quick moment of humor, can we all have a good laugh about the visuals of the “Superunknown” music video? This must have been a huge feat for Windows 95 era art software, but 23 years later it is hilariously dated. We’ll get to the demented mindfuck visuals of “Black Hole Sun”‘s rather famous music video soon, but for now, let’s all point and laugh at the music video equivalent of an episode of Xavier: Renegade Angel for the time being. The song itself is a good point of reference to discuss the sonic changes in Soundgarden’s style at the time. It’s built around a big, flashy riff, but instead of bludgeoning you to death like a Badmotorfinger riff, this one lingers out in the ethers and works around the soaring vocals of Cornell. It all comes to a crunch in the chorus, but invokes a sort of psychedelic delirium instead of a sludgy riffed beatdown like previous Soundgarden albums. Thayil’s guitar work in this song is amazing stuff, really goes to show how underrated he’s been in the big picture. “Let Me Drown” finds Soundgarden utilizing some standard song structure, and really does come off like the Led Zeppelin of the 90’s in it’s musical interplay and straight-up rocking vibes. Soundgarden deciding to work in some standardized song structures and Beatles-esque psychedelic pop sounds really works wonders on so many levels for their sound, and on the opposite end of the spectrum, when they balance it out with those churning, sluggish metal riffs that dominated their earlier work. One thing people always point out when it comes to Soundgarden and this album specifically is the strange guitar tunings and time signatures utilized by the group, but I honestly don’t understand those aspects of songwriting very well, so I’m just going to silently nod and agree that Soundgarden mastered these odd nuances with Superunknown.
“My Wave” is a pretty good reference point for the balancing act of mixing the old and new sounds together (well, so is “Black Hole Sun”, but I’m getting to it…). They have this stop-start riff going on, but it’s not tuned down like on Badmotorfinger and it kind of skitters around in this weird tempo the whole time while Cornell uses his more subdued vocal approach. This song is very anthemic and catchy, and was one of about 6 or 7 singles released from the album. It wasn’t very successful, but it came between “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell On Black Days” in terms of airplay release, so it had a lot to live up to at the time. The verses are the strong points, and the psychedelic wall of guitars in the chorus is a nice touch despite the somewhat goofy chant of “PISS ON MAH GATE!” in there. But what’s very much a highlight to me in this song is the rhythm section. Not only do Matt and Ben hold down this weird off-tempo driving back beat for a solid 5 minutes, but then toward the end Ben starts doing a bass solo over the studio guitar production wizardry and it’s fucking fantastic. The song finishes out stronger than it even started in that aspect, and this is still only the second track on here. But then it segues into “Fell On Black Days”, and we all know this song (again, if you don’t, why have you read over 4,000 words in this article already?)
“Fell On Black Days” was the last single released from the album, unless we’re counting the Songs from the Superunknown/Alive in the Superunknown EP as a single for the title track, and it’s sort of surprising that it wasn’t one of the first singles. Once again, we’ve got that trademark Cornell mournful croon going on here instead of the wailing scream, and its probably one of the sound changes that the band benefited from the most. Not everything needs the big metal scream, and Cornell is masterful with this more subtle approach that leads to a darker, more sinister sound overall. This song has a lot of the hallmarks of Soundgarden’s era of the time: Very catchy and repetitive lyrics locked into a familiar yet engaging song structure, very depressing and bleak lyrical content, once it gets around to the bridge Kim Thayil breaks out the eastern influenced guitar riff, and everything builds into a classic Cornell wail moment before breaking back down at the end. It’s no wonder this has stood the test of time to be one of Soundgarden’s most memorable works, it’s an amazing song that still sounds as fresh on listen number one million as it did at first. “Mailman” brings back the heaviness with another classic sludgy, simple riff to go along with Cornell’s brooding vocals here, which are absolutely a highlight. It’s simple yet effective, and the song’s lyrical fixation on doom and gloom makes this one a dismal stunner with that “I know I’m headed for the bottom, but I’m riding you all the way” chorus. Eventually, it all gets worked up into a frenzy, complete with the Cornell wail and the frantic aimless guitar soloing. Galvanizing stuff, metal as fuck-all. Ben Shepherd gets one of his signature weird compositions in with “Head Down”, which is a really out-there one thus far. Acoustic guitars and mandolins playing simple eastern-influenced chords combined with that Beatles-esque psychedelic pop melody makes for a really beautiful yet dark sound, with a very atmospheric and repetitively hooking vocal part that sounds as defeating as it is aloof and detached. And Matt Cameron, man is he doing some fucking interesting stuff with the drums in this song. There’s parts that kind of sound like footsteps walking across a wooden floor in here, and the song concludes with a drum solo that really goes to show how much wasted potential there is in Cameron’s Pearl Jam contributions in the 2000s. This is why Soundgarden works so well as a band unit versus, say, Cornell solo or Ben Shepherd solo (which I’m not too familiar with, but I’ve heard some stuff). I don’t really think another band could or ever will come up with stuff this unique, and at this point in Soundgarden’s career this was a bold new direction to explore. Now “Spoonman”, well we all know “Spoonman” too, it’s another one of their strange new directions and was the first single from the album. And I don’t hesitate to claim this at all, it’s probably the worst song on the album aside from the short numbers toward the end of the album (I’m looking at you “Kickstand” and “Half”). It works as a song, and experimenting with a call-and-response style song structure with vocals courtesy of Ben was another new direction for them at the time, but it’s quite lackluster when compared with whats surrounding it on the record. Also, the lyrics in this one are pretty weird (“All my friends are indians, all my friends are brown and red”) and it being a song about a guy who plays the spoons as an instrument is a bit out there, even for Soundgarden. That spoonman does in fact appear in the song, giving the bridge even more percussive weirdness than usual. The song somehow won the 1995 Grammy award for “Best Metal Performance”, and this isn’t metal at all, it’s probably one of their least metal songs yet at this point. Hell, it was even popular enough for Bill Nye the science guy to release a parody of it on the subject of barometric pressure:
Another song on the album that could possibly be a candidate for their best work is the soaring monument of despair that is “Limo Wreck”. “Limo Wreck” really works that balance between extremely heavy, Cornell wailing like a madman style of old with the subdued, alternative rock-induced style change to perfection. The riff in this song is super distorted and drones on in a very disenchanting way while Cornell croons some of his bleakest doomsday-heralding lyrics yet. That slow, disorienting build to a total freakout of screaming and guitars is on display yet again here, simmering to the top before reaching a sonic critical mass. “I’m the wreck of you, I’m the death of you all”, Cornell sounds like an absolutely unhinged madman in this one and I love every second of the near 6 minutes this one sticks around for. It’s totally a highlight of their discography. Toward the end of the album, we also get two sort of tossed off pieces in “Kickstand” and “Half”, and while both couldn’t be any more different, they seem to exist solely because no one wanted to parse this album down from it’s 70 minute run time. “Kickstand” is a short, fast punk-influenced song that the band often played live, but it has some more weird lyrics even for Cornell (“Kickstand, you got the juice to fill my cup”, what the fuck does that even mean?) and “Half” is a Ben Shepherd composition that has some bizarre vocals (not sure if this is Chris or Ben singing even) over an eastern sounding riff before changing into a psychedelic drugged out haze for the second half. “Half” is at least kind of cool in being such a weird oddity in the discography, but these are easily the bottom 2 songs on the album. “Fresh Tendrils” is a Matt Cameron composition featuring the late Natasha Schneider (Queens of the Stone Age, Eleven) on that weird organ sounding thing that features throughout the song. This is another “strange new directions” kind of song, I really like the guitar and drum work here and Cornell’s vocals follow the “croon the verse, yell the chorus” structure that’s worked so well for Superunknown. And “4th of July”, goddamn, that is a straight-up doom metal song hiding out at the end of a hugely successful mainstream grunge record. Cornell has some double-tracked distorted vocals here over a brutally punishing riff that dukes it out with the heaviest of them. I love this song so much, that my tradition on the fourth of July is to wake up and listen to this song, first thing I’ve done that day for well over a decade now. This year, it’ll be a mournful experience as it will be the first time in the post-Cornell world that I indulge in my tradition of starting my July 4th down in the hole where Jesus tries to crack a smile beneath another shovel load.
So why did I stop reviewing everything in order and skip over “Black Hole Sun”, “The Day I Tried to Live” and “Like Suicide”? Well, because these three songs are also ones that I could talk about for an extended length. “The Day I Tried to Live” and “Like Suicide” might be my choices for the best songs on the album, if not the entire Soundgarden discography. “The Day I Tried to Live” is an anthem of self-loathing and defeatism if I’ve ever heard one, and the interplay of the rhythm section is so fucking stellar in this song that you just need to fucking listen to it. Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd steal the show here, they’re absolutely killing it in full form to the utmost. “Like Suicide” on the other hand is seven minutes of everything that ever made Soundgarden one of my favorite bands all in one song: Everyone is in top form, the guitar solos here are my favorites that Kim Thayil ever did, Cornell is absolutely belting it out, and in the wake of Cornell’s death by suicide, it’s as morbid a song as there ever was in music. The lyrics detailing the time Cornell found a dying bird on the ground and put it out of its misery are the sort of creeping, inescapable darkness and resignation to death that ultimately became a self fulfilling prophecy in his case. “Black Hole Sun”, while not my favorite song on Superunknown, is THE quintessential Soundgarden song and their biggest hit single by far. It wasn’t even the first single, hell, it wasn’t even the second single, “The Day I Tried to Live” was. But somehow, this 5 minutes of psychotropic distortion in the guise of a Beatles styled pop song with a fucking doom metal guitar solo section shoehorned into the middle of it became the song that defined the band’s career. It won pretty much every award it was nominated for back in the day and managed to get doom metal on pop radio, even if it was only for a short segment of the song. The guitar solo in this song has to be one of the most chaotic they ever had, and is probably the wildest one to make an appearance a mainstream hit. And how can I forget to mention THAT video. That was the first thing Soundgarden I ever heard/saw (except for possibly that Bill Nye parody) and it’s by far the most entertaining a Soungarden video had ever been. The graphics are dated, but that only furthers the weirdness now. The band plays on while a literal black hole sun melts and destroys the world around them, turning a baby into a gelatinous blob and sucking people into the nothingness, while the visuals violently scream “TAKE DRUGS!” at you. It has to go down as one of the most memorable music videos ever.
So now that my doctoral thesis on Superunknown is complete, that leaves us with two albums to go: 1996’s Down on the Upside and 2012’s reunion album King Animal, along with a few one-off tracks here and there for their compilation albums A Sides and Telephantasm. Unfortunately, Down on the Upside’s recording process took a major toll on the band, and in early 1997 the band packed it in and called it a day. Cornell went solo and did his thing with Audioslave, Kim Thayil made some appearances on the Boris and Sunn O))) collaboration album and Dave Grohl’s Probot record, Cameron joined Pearl Jam as their permanent drummer and has been there ever since. Ben Shepherd sort of dropped off the face of the planet for the downtime before resurfacing for the reunion. So now we have to see where Soundgarden went in the post-Superunknown, international superstar status era with Down on the Upside.
So yeah… that’s kind of an uncomfortable one now that we’ve figured out the circumstances of Cornell’s untimely demise. “Pretty Noose” finds Soundgarden exploring the psychedelic pop territory some more, the vocals are pretty calm and subdued in comparison to even the Superunknown album but the voice is still there and undeniably great sounding. This is a bit more basic and straightforward, something that we’ll see with these last two Soundgarden records. “Rhinosaur” is also more straight-forward and as much as I hate to say it, pedestrian sounding mid-90’s radio ready grunge. These two songs are a good start to the record, but they aren’t knock-out-of-the-park amazing either. The main riffs in both songs are good, if a bit conventional, there’s enough of the weirdness retained to maintain it firmly as Soundgarden, but if the whole album was like these two songs, I wouldn’t really be getting too into it. But then comes “Zero Chance”, a hauntingly depressing acoustic ballad that might be the bleakest thing yet for these guys. When Cornell slips out that “born without a friend and bound to die alone” chorus, I mean goddamn, that is some of the most miserable sounding sentiment I’ve ever heard in a song. Unfortunately, I guess he meant that shit, because this song is almost uncomfortable to listen to now. “Zero Chance” is easily a highlight of the entire album and the Soundgarden discography in general, it’s a nice slice of pitch black misery. “Dusty” kind of brings back more of the Superunknown style, using a lot of busy percussion and hooky, repetitive lyrics, but it’s also firmly based in this commitment to an alternative rock approach. The guitars sound mainly acoustic in this one again, it shuffles and bounces around with some excellent rhythm section gymnastics. It’s alright. Down on the Upside is the album where Kim Thayil’s more metal approach to the guitar parts ended up taking a backseat with Cornell and Ben Shepherd writing the majority of the album, so this album is kind of lacking in that aspect of their sound. “Ty Cobb” tries to rectify this, being a short and fast song that sounds more like an expletive filled rant than anything else. It ends up being one of the worst songs here, sure it’s got some redeeming qualities, but compared to say, “Mailman” or “Face Pollution”, I’m going with those every time. But, then we get the dream team 1-2 combo of “Blow Up the Outside World” and “Burden in My Hand” up next, the big hit singles of the album that absolutely compete with the “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days” of the last installment. “Blow Up the Outside World” and “Burden in My Hand” are both based around some very simple and even poppy song structures, but the subject matter here is pretty much as misery wallowed as “Zero Chance” or “Like Suicide”. “Blow Up the Outside World” is a builder, it works up a seething negativity up until it explodes after a rather mellow and dissonant guitar bridge. I do remember hearing this song as a kid way before I ever knew who Soundgarden was, so for being such a dour song it has a catchy side that burrows down into your head, even as it finishes up with crackling guitars squealing off beneath Cornell’s defeated mantra of a chorus. “Burden in My Hand” on the other hand is a 90’s grunge take on a murder ballad, it comes right out the gate with Cornell and that infectious acoustic guitar inviting us on a journey where it’s going to end with him shooting his subject, all while mocking them to become an alcoholic or kill themselves. This one also seems really dark to the point of being hard to listen to after Chris’ death, but it’s worth mentioning that he didn’t actually write this about his own feelings. Kim Thayil characterized the songs as a “Hey Joe” for the 1990’s, and this would end up being Soundgarden’s only other top 40 pop chart hit in the United States. This was a massively successful song when compared with the response “Pretty Noose” got as the lead single, but it deserves every bit of accolade and mainstream success it achieved. It’s a stone cold Soundgarden classic that couldn’t be replicated by anyone else, and showed their strength in a changed direction of sound.
“Never Named”, well this is probably the single worst song on the album since it’s another barely 2 minute piece with more Cornell weirdness in the lyrics (it’s about his childhood dog). I mean, this exists, that’s about all I have to say for that one. “Applebite”, on the other hand, is likely the weirdest Soundgarden song out there, rivaling Superunknown’s “Half”. “Applebite” is a 5 minute stretch of moody, distorted synthesizer driven ambience with some really interesting stuff coming from Matt Cameron. Cornell is distorted to near incomprehension on the detached vocal part, and the guitars largely exist to create textures for the synthesizers to lead forward with. It’s unlike anything Soundgarden did before or afterwards and is worth a listen for the oddball factor, it’s not a bad song. Kim Thayil has his lone composition here with “Never The Machine Forever”, which is also not coincidentally the lone track featuring a very heavy riff and the Cornell wail of the days of old. But this song is really great from all four members, Cameron is doing some ridiculously complex drumming and the song is led by a strong and memorable bassline. My favorite part has to be midway through, where the guitar switches up to this very, very off time riff that is actually one of my favorites Thayil ever laid down. It’s gnarly, and I’m glad the end of the song revisits this riff because I can never get tired of that one. “Tighter and Tighter” tries to be the towering epic of the album, the only song clocking over 6 minutes, but it ends up sounding like a stoned jam that’s half tribute to Led Zeppelin, half 1996 alternative rock based Soundgarden in a struggle between which style they want to go for here. It’s a decent song, but Cornell has some more distortion effects on his vocals and this song actually kind of drags along by the time it’s coming to a close. Probably could have been a bit more concise. “No Attention” goes for the more frantic delivery and riff based structure, but it also just kind of middles around and doesn’t really ascend to any great heights or imprinting memorability. “Switch Opens” is another weird Shepherd contribution, this one has Cornell sounding downright happy while singing about slave revolts and botched surgery while there’s some kind of xylophone sounding thing under the guitars. It’s another one that’s worth listening to, just to hear Soundgarden expanding even further into new territories of sound. “Overfloater” is a very strong late installment to this album, this one is as dark and moody as ever, taking on an atmosphere of paranoid agoraphobia almost. Cornell croons out his dreary, bleak portrait for one last time here on the album. “An Unkind” is a pretty decent Ben track that kind of sounds like garage rock or something to that effect, it’s very short and to the point and doesn’t overstay for more than 2 minutes but also doesn’t really leave you with anything special about it either. Finally, the 16th and final song here is the psychedelic blur of “Boot Camp”, which starts out with some weird sampled speech that’s distorted beyond understanding along with a very, very nice little riff that’s steeped in delirium. This song is also only about 3 minutes long, and features one verse, and it’s of course one last black passage from Cornell’s ill-fated, doom sowing lyrical styling. This is a great ending to the album, but listening to this entire album in a row can be a daunting challenge. Here, we have some of Soundgarden’s best work and most spotty work all in one collection. And of course at the time, it ended up being the final Soundgarden album for a long 16 years.
So while Soundgarden were gone, there were a couple new songs that were released for both of their greatest hits albums. In 1997, the album A-Sides was released with a new track at the end, “Bleed Together”. “Bleed Together” sounds exactly like something that was left off of Down on the Upside, it has some cool guitar work but there’s really nothing essential about it. When Soundgarden’s reunion in 2010 was announced, they released another compilation called Telephantasm which featured a new song that was left off of Badmotorfinger called “Black Rain”. Well, “Black Rain” is absolutely essential listening because this song brings it, fucking hard. This is classic 1991 Cornell wailing his ass off, and the riff here is straight up heavy as fuck. This song is, as I described Badmotorfinger, capital M-E-T-A-L heavy fucking metal. So for those 2 records, skip “Bleed Together”, but definitely track down “Black Rain” and give it a listen or fifty if you don’t know that one. The music video for “Black Rain” is from Brendon Small and features Soundgarden in the visual style of his Adult Swim show Metalocalypse, so definitely watch the video for “Black Rain” while you’re at it.
…and I’m still, STILL not even to King Animal yet, because then Soundgarden released the song “Live to Rise” as the lead single for the hugely successful The Avengers movie soundtrack. Well, “Live to Rise” is actually kind of boring, it is by far the Soundgarden song that sounded most like solo Chris Cornell, though Kim Thayil at least tries to make it interesting in the guitar department. That one is definitely not essential listening. There was also a live album released from the 1996 tour called Live On I-5, it’s worth checking out, but in the era of Youtube there’s a lot more out there from Soundgarden to relive the glory days of their 1990’s live performances.
But finally, after 16 long years, Soundgarden finally got around to releasing one more album. In November 2012, King Animal dropped to resounding acclaim from the fans and critics alike, and we were all just happy to have Soundgarden back and releasing new music as a functional unit. I remember people anticipating the release of the first single “Been Away for Too Long” as if they were children waiting to go to the toy store, it really was at a fever pitch. “Been Away for Too Long” really isn’t that special either, it features a very basic riff that sounds like the less memorable stuff on Down on the Upside, and while Cornell sounds fine, his lyrics here are a bit on-the-nose and seem to be a commentary about the band being broken up for years. The bridge in this song is the most interesting thing, there’s some of the weirdness of the days of old in that part, but the bulk of this song seems to be Cornell repeating “I’ve been away for too long” over and over again, and really, Cornell wasn’t away at all. Soundgarden were away, but Cornell has had a rigorous solo career and has pretty much always been touring or releasing new music in the absence of Soundgarden. “Non State Actor” is a Kim Thayil composition, and it goes for the riff based approach with some nice drumming from Cameron (it was so good to hear him doing interesting things again, unlike his Pearl Jam work). But other than that, this song is just kind of boring and is lyrically generic social commentary. But don’t act like I’m just flat out hating on King Animal, because the middle of the album is definitely the strongest act, with a very worthy stretch of tunes beginning with “By Crooked Steps”.
“By Crooked Steps” really feels like the logical extension of Soundgarden’s past with a modern take. While the Cornell wail is still there, he was getting older, so we shouldn’t be expecting it to sound like 1991. They’re doing their time signature, off tempo trickery again, the riff here is fucking badass, this is a strong effort for being out of the game for so long. And that Dave Grohl directed video, that is just hilarious as hell. “A Thousand Days Before” is a more atmospheric take, with some of those eastern sounding riffs of old, and the elder statesmen Cornell giving it his all with some powerful vocals. And “Blood On the Valley Floor” brings in another patented Soundgarden metal riff that sounds straight out of Badmotorfinger. “Bones of Birds” is a slower, moody song where the rhythm section really nail it, Ben’s bass work in particular is really great on this one. “Taree” is a nice take on mid-period Soundgarden, with Cornell crooning in that classic brooding fashion before building it all up to a peak with the chorus and bridge. “Attrition” is Ben Shepherd’s composition, and it’s one of the heavier songs here but gets a lot done in its short running time. “Black Saturday”, nice Black Sabbath reference there, is an acoustic number with some touches of horns, and it’s probably the most depressing song here lyrically except for maybe “Bones of Birds”. Once “Halfway There” comes around though, well that’s kind of it for memorable parts on the record. “Halfway There” tries to be this happy pop song, and it really doesn’t work at all, especially when you listen to the demo version on the deluxe edition and realize it started as a depressing solo Cornell acoustic piece. In the demo, the tempo is slower and the subject matter seems much more suited to Cornell’s low croon than whatever the fuck they were going for on the album version. “Worse Dreams”, “Eyelid’s Mouth” and “Rowing” try to go for the experimental, boundary pushing sounds of the Soundgarden of old, and while the instrumentation the band brings is quite exceptional, these songs just kind of drag on a lot longer than they needed to go for. “Rowing” concludes things quite well, building into a vocals-and-guitar freakout reminiscent of Superunknown, but the preceding three songs just aren’t up to snuff and kind of bog down King Animal in my opinion. But still, that middle section of King Animal is great stuff, and the album on the whole is a worthy final installment to the Soundgarden discography.
And now finally, the rank down of the Soundgarden studio albums properly:
- Ultramega OK – 444.6 repeating/667
- King Animal – 35 Black Saturdays/52 Black Saturdays
- Louder Than Love – 71 Hands All Over/100 Hands All Over
- Down on the Upside – 81 Chances out of Zero Chance (10-Zero Chance scale)
- Badmotorfinger – 9 Jesus Christ Poses/10 Jesus Christ Poses
- Superunknown – 999 Days I Tried to Live/ 1,000 Days I Tried to Live (the 1,000th was May 18th, 2017)
So now that I’ve finished this 9,000 word tome of a fond look back at the Soundgarden catalogue, what else is there to say or do? Cornell has had a long and fulfilling career and discography that is exemplary and monumental, and it doesn’t get much better than Superunknown in terms of all music, ever. So now there will be one more article published in the near future, but I think we can all move on and keep the music of Soundgarden alive in our stereos and speakers forever. They were a fantastic band, and their reunion period has been sadly cut short by unfortunate circumstance. R.I.P. Chris Cornell.