Reprinted without permission from The Olympian, December 6, 1996


Kings of the scene: Other Seattle bands have fallen by the wayside, but Soundgarden just keeps blooming.

When the Seattle rock band Soundgarden released "Superunknown," in 1994, it seemed a fitting title for a band that had gained notoriety but never reached the plateau of fame that marked fellow Seattle alternative rockers Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

But the band wouldn't remain unknown for long. Fueled by the slow-building success of 1991's "Badmotorfinger," "Superunknown" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and has sold more than five million copies in the United States alone.

Meanwhile, Nirvana has disbanded and Pearl Jam's infamous ticketing and touring problems have decreased their popularity, making Soundgarden's members arguably the kings of the Seattle music scene.

Soundgarden plays two hometown concerts Tuesday and Wednesday at the Mercer Arena. The shows follow the release of a much-awaited follow-up album, "Down on the Upside," and are most likely sold out.

It's easy to see where the fascination with Soundgarden comes from. "Down on the Upside," like "Superunknown," is a chameleon-like display of the band's many styles. Though most often compared with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, the band also can remind one of classic rock and mainstream pop with a haunting edge.

The edge comes from lead singer Chris Cornell's voice, a deep, loud vocal sound that is reminiscent of a bottomless, black pool. Cornell can croon softly or scream loudly, all with seemingly effortless ease and staying power. Kim Thayil, the most recognizable of the band members with his nearly waist-length mane of thick black hair, adds distinctive guitar noodling that varies in weight and is just repetitive enough to be catchy without being boring. Bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron add more layers of sound to complete the band's heavy, multi-faceted alternative rock.

The band's lyrics are bleak ("Zero Chance") to suicidal ("Tighter and Tighter"), and yet there is still something beautiful in them. And there is also the sense that no matter how low he goes, songwriter Cornell cannot let go of his survival instinct. On "Blow Up the Outside World," a ballad that turns into a heavy metal-tinged alternative rock anthem and back again, he sings:

"Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try/Nothing is closing my eyes/Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight/And nothing seems to break me/No matter how hard I fall nothing can break me at all/Not one for giving up though not invincible I know."