Reprinted without permission from Bam, June 14, 1996

by Gregory Heller


On 1994s Superunknown, Seattle scene primogenitors Soundgarden reinvented metal (yes, that's what it's called) music. The band discarded their lengthy yell operas of the past, replacing them with tight, still powerful, and (in some cynical eyes) easily digestible tunes. The mood remained gloomy, but the songs opened up to the listener -- equal parts confession and heavy pop masterpiece. Down on the Upside, then, sets out to fuse both past and present, never abandoning the ferocity of its predecessor, but remembering the looseness of the early years. By throwing out those ever-pesky outside influences (Down on the Upside is self-produced) and stripping down the multi-layered tracks, Chris Cornell and Co. have made a valiant effort at recreating the raw past in the polished present.

The results, however, are mixed. Lyrically, the record is an impenetrable monument to listener inaccessibility, while musically it's an often driving -- though occasionally stale -- mixture of slow rolling rockers and odd-timed riffage.

Still, the best tunes are truly world class stuff. "Zero Chance" is one of the most gorgeous tunes Soundgarden's ever recorded. It dwells on ever-present loneliness while somehow maintaining an uplifting rhythm, the roller-coaster ride we've come to expect: "They say if you look hard/you'll find your way back home/born without a friend/bound to die alone."

The flat out infectious aggression of "Ty Cobb" comes complete with power mandolin, while the dreamy, Beatlesque "Blow up the Outside World" is a simultaneously furious and restrained anthem of introversion. And the ascending urgency of the album's best rocker "Tighter and Tighter" invites us to damn the intellectual necessity, bang our collective heads, and scream, "Sleep tight for me I'm gone"... whatever the hell that might mean!

The band's attempts at "art rock," however, are good for street cred points and little else. "Applebite," a five-minute Syd Barret-esque "piece," amounts to little more than babble, while "Never the Machine Forever," guitarist Kim Thayil's anti-tech manifesto, amounts to even less: "Forever means all is not seen/Never means forever brings nothing." Say what?

Down on the Upside seems neither a step forward nor a fall back but rather a move sideways, a long deserved pause to rock in their creative evolution. Besides, who are we to deny these pioneers some playtime? Forget the operatic epics of old. Throw down your lofty standards. Raise your pinky and index finger and repeat after me, "This rocks!!!"