Reprinted without permission from Melody Maker, March
EDEN OF INIQUITY
Soundgarden, Camden Underworld, London
Chomp chomp chomp, swallow swallow grimace. The sound of a music journalist eating his own words. Good job my writing's normally so tasteful. Yum. Gobble gobble slurp. Belch.
Y'see, a couple of weeks ago I dared to insinuate that Chris Cornell, bare-chested, flame-tressed screamer with Seattle rock gods Soundgarden, was cashing in on the Nirvana craze and turning himself into a wily paragon of female values, was becoming something akin to a (gasp) "new man". How could I have been so stupid? Having a sense of humour and a sense of decency doesn't automatically exclude one from the beef-cake stakes. Soundgarden are -- pretty much -- the acceptable face of corporate-sponsored rock. And, in the shapely form of Cornell's behind, they have the cuddliest pair of buns in town. Or so I'm informed.
It's too easy to confuse packaging with content. Don't blame me. The industry makes it as difficult as possible nowadays to sort matters out. Right now, it's all too easy to take three bands -- Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, say -- and place them in the same bracket: Seattle-bred metal. Wrong wrong wrong! Let me put this simply and coherently for you kids, so you don't get fooled again. Nirvana: awesome. Pearl Jam: pompous, sub-Genesis fake metallic crap. And Soundgarden... well, Soundgarden aren't working within the same precincts at all.
Soundgarden have always had more in common with the metal god posturing of the early Seventies than the play metal pretence of the early Nineties (look, for the last time: NIRVANA ARE NOT METAL!). Soundgarden have always been way more Ozzy than Dio, early Plant than Palmer, say, right from the start. "Louder than Love" betrayed their love for early seventies riff-o-mania long before it became fashionable again, and last year's "Badmotorfinger" was merely a continuation of their over-riding regard for Tony Iommi's fretwork (indeed, in much the same way "Bandwagonesque" is the best album Big Star never made, so "Badmotorfinger" is a worthy carrier of the Sabbath flame). Ignore the accusations being thrown at Cornell and the inspirational Thayil (Soundgarden's guitarist, dumbheads), that they're merely wimped-out middle class pretenders. Soundgarden don't subvert, they reinvent. They rock.
How could one doubt otherwise, hearing Cornell's unearthly, desperate scream which beckons in tonight's set with a slightly lame version of "Searching With My Good Eye Closed"? They may have the power of corporate America behind them, but this doesn't necessarily mean they've been homogenised. By the time they launch into the bad-ass boogie of last year's "Drawing Flies" and poignant "Room A Thousand Years Wide", we couldn't give a shit about whether they're new men, too-clever Sabbath revivalists or the latest mindfuck revellers, all we wanna do is shake this fucking stardust outta our hair. Which we do, and then some.
Their revamped version of the Sab's "Into The Void" is pulverising. Cornell stomps and moshes across the stage, possessed. "Make this a single," I scream silently, as Cornell admonishes yet another fan who wants them to play an old-time cover. "Don't you guys like any of our songs?" he jokes, pausing only to apologise to some punter he's just whacked across the face with his guitar. "How did that feel?" he asks concerned. "It felt..." the girl replies, and Cornell whisks the microphone away, off to another place altogether.
Tonight's low-key showcase in a cause for celebration, a pause for respite before the serious task of converting the kids in Britain begins in earnet. So we're greeted with a plethora of old numbers, from the blistering, fazing "Big Dumb Sex" (yes, it's possible to be powerfully sexual without being sexist) to the oddly distorted vocals on "Somewhere", which recalls the mind-altering metal of former fellow SST labelmates Das Damen far more than any current major mayhem. We get the serpentine "Gun", which leaps from the stage and attempts to grapple us by the throat, and "Mind Riot", greet with ferocious acclaim by the hair-heads stage front central.
But, pleasingly, it's the recent songs which come across best, giving full vent to Cornell's ear-splitting screams and Thayil's tres vert fingerwork. The current American hit, "Outshined", is introduced as "'Smells Like Teen...' nah, just kidding", and powers through like only songs with no melody can. God it hurts, but good. And soon-come British smash, "Jesus Christ Pose", which finishes the two-hour set, caterwauls and stop-starts with a comely swagger. Fuck. If rocks gonna be this proud and up-front, I have absolutely no objection to being part of it.
So Cornell is intelligent, sensitive and manly, and reinvests rock with spirit and then some. Fuck. That's no reason to string him up on high.