Reprinted without permission from the San Francisco
Examiner, December 6, 1996
SENSUAL AND FERAL ROCK: SOUNDGARDEN AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME
Assembling a GOOD hard rock band isn't brain surgery. With this kind of band, spawned by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, the words don't matter much. Neither do political sentiments, nor the kind of clothes worn on stage. Nothing like that.
Here's what you need: a guitar player with some skill and imagination, a drummer who pounds, a bassist who propels and a singer who can carry a tune.
To make a GREAT rock band requires all of the above, plus something extraordinary. In the case of Soundgarden, that something is singer Chris Cornell.
The veteran Seattle rocker has emerged, after years of quiet, diligent dedication to his craft, as one of the finest voices in rock 'n' roll today. His is an amazing instrument that soars with ease from deep sensuality in the lower registers to a feral howl in the upper range - a youthful, alterna-rock Robert Plant.
Thanks largely to Cornell, Soundgarden's Thursday night show at Oakland's Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium was smashing, a fat 90 minutes of rock 'n' roll the way God intended it to be: loud, crunching and sung from the gut.
From the opening riffs of "Spoonman" to the sweat-drenched encores, Soundgarden proved that after 10 years in the biz they are at the top of their game - possibly even deserving the lofty title Details magazine recently gave them: the Greatest Hard Rock Band in the World. But theirs is far from an overnight success.
Soundgarden was paying dues in Seattle clubs before Nirvana was anything but a vague Eastern religious experience. And while bands like Kurt Cobain's trio, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and others zigged and zagged across the musical map, flaming out on heroin or suicide or psychological breakdowns, Soundgarden stayed the course, cranking out album after album - six in all - of industrial strength rock, and worked patiently until their time arrived.
That time is now, with Soundgarden's most recent album, "Down on the Upside" selling close to 3 million copies, two videos in heavy circulation on MTV and Cornell's enigmatic mug on magazine covers.
(Cornell may be second only to Bush's Gavin Rossdale in the pin-up department these days, with his wild eyes, Middle-Eastern-terrorist visage and tall thin frame that never seems to be wearing a shirt. The men don't know, but the little girls understand.)
Because Soundgarden's albums are uneven - bursts of brilliance mixed with more pedestrian tunes - it's a treat to hear the band live. The 16-song set was largely a "greatest hits" compilation, most drawn from the current album and several from 1994's "Superunknown," which also sold millions of copies.
After the zippy syncopation of "Spoonman," the band did "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," the song immortalized in the documentary "Hype!" There followed "Pretty Noose" and "Burden in My Hand" - two of the newest songs to be rotated on the radio.
Words aren't important with Soundgarden; this is not Counting Crows after all. Cornell does most of the lyrics and they are largely angry and alienated, but interesting sketches, nonetheless.
("Pretty Noose" in particular: "Common ruse, dirty face / Pretty noose is pretty hate / And I don't like what you got me hanging from." )
Soundgarden is confident enough as a band now to slow the merciless action down occasionally, not always pandering to those who worship from the mosh pit. Cornell surprised the crowd by standing alone on stage, playing a very serviceable rhythm guitar for a new, sensual version of "Black Hole Sun" that he unkindly dubbed "lounge music." Then later he did the same treatment for "Fell on Black Days"; the results were magical.
Guitarist Kim Thayil is gifted enough to slide comfortably between manic feedback and thunderous Zeppelinesque riffs; he and Cornell share an easy camaraderie. Drummer Matt Cameron sounds like an army and bassist Ben Shepherd knows when to plow the field and when to hang back. But it's Cornell's charisma that raises Soundgarden above standard arena rock into something pretty spectacular.
Soundgarden has been pigeon-holed as a heavy metal / hard rock band, but they've matured greatly in style, deftly manipulating guitar-god elements and melodic content.
Opening for Soundgarden was the San Diego eight-man band Rocket from the Crypt, the name being indicative of their perverse, manic energy. Retro punkish in silver lame and featuring a small horn section, Rocket got points for even marginally entertaining a crowd who just wanted them to get off stage so Soundgarden could get on.