Reprinted without permission from The Boston Phoenix,
May 16, 1996
BIGGER THAN LOVE: SOUNDGARDEN DELIVER THEIR LOLLAPALOOZA CALLING
Nobody could have guessed that alterna-rock would be bigger than Guns N' Roses back in '86, when singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil of Soundgarden started pounding out their dark, churning hybrid of punk and metal -- much less that Seattle would be ground zero for the new-rock explosion. Anyone stoned or twisted enough to endure the lacerating, low-frequency shrapnel storm of Soundgarden's classic 1987 Screaming Life EP (Sub Pop) back then would have required a lot of persuading to imagine that the band would someday harness the groove of Led Zeppelin and hit the charts with anything half as tuneful and sophisticated as "Black Hole Sun."
But Soundgarden were in the right place at the right time all along. And after winning a Grammy with 1994's multi-platinum Superunknown (A&M) and being chosen as one of the monsters of rock on this year's Lollapalooza, they've got more momentum than the Clinton re-election campaign . . . and a much cleaner closet.
Soundgarden couldn't blow it in '96 if they tried. Modern-rock radio programming has already helped bring the metal that alterna-rock temporarily eclipsed back into the spotlight, a trend that's reflected by Lollapalooza's selection of that old warhorse Metallica as this year's headliner. And if there's one outfit that's perfectly suited to straddling the great alterna-metal divide, it's Soundgarden. After all, that's what Chris Cornell and his crew were doing long before bands like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots came onto the scene.
Fortunately, as the title of the their fifth full-length CD, Down on the Upside (A&M; in stores on May 21), suggests, Soundgarden aren't about to let success or confidence spoil the subtle balance of Zeppelin and irony that's brought them this far. That balance is just about the only thing even remotely subtle about the band who repopularized the male banshee wail and offered the world ridiculously named discs like Ultramega OK (SST, 1987), Louder Than Love (A&M, 1989), and, my personal favorite, Badmotorfinger (A&M, 1991). Houses of the Unholy would have been too obvious and too death-metal. Hairway to Steven was already taken by the Butthole Surfers and might have been too silly anyway. But alluding with a half-smirk to Zep's most atmospheric disc, In Through the Out Door, suits Soundgarden's shirtless charade to a tee. You can read it as a reverent nod to Page and Plant or as a something a bit more subversive; Soundgarden have the firepower to back it up either way.
How shameless are Cornell and main songwriting partner Ben Shepherd (bass) when it comes to appropriating ammunition this time around? Well, very. The disc's second track, "Rhinosaur," cops the tricky time signature and inverts the thrusting riff of Zeppelin's "The Ocean" with practiced skill, and then Thayil has the nerve to head off into a "Black Dog"-style spitfire solo on the bridge. The chorused guitar hammer-ons that lead into the power ballad "Zero Chance" echo the pastoral splendor of the intro to "Over the Hills and Far Away." "Overfloater" swims through some of the same watery psychedelic channels as "No Quarter." Thayil's gnarled "Never the Machine Forever" has a bridge that alludes to the descending-scale section of "Kashmir." Even the punkabilly thrash of "Ty Cobb" has a Zep precedent in the overdriven twang of In Through the Out Door's loopy "Hot Dog."
Those are just some of the more obvious parallels, the ones that suggest Soundgarden aren't ashamed to wear their influences on their sleeves. And they shouldn't be, because coming even close to achieving the sublime dynamics of Zeppelin is something many lesser bands have attempted to no avail. What separates the men in Soundgarden from the countless other boys in bands that have aspired to rock the Houses of the Holy is a crucial understanding of the importance of groove. Down on the Upside is more than the sum of its piled-on guitars. Underneath all those thick and grungy riffs, Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron employ more than just muscle to move things along. There's enough funk in the beat behind the slam-bam assault of "No Attention" to bring back memories of Aerosmith's Rocks, another disc that figures heavily in Soundgarden's bag of tricks -- just listen to the way Thayil's whining wah-wah weaves around Cornell's vocals when he sings lines like "Eat the fruit and kiss the snake goodnight" on "Pretty Noose" and see whether it doesn't remind you of what Joe Perry and Steven Tyler were doing back in the '70s.
Another element that continues to work in Soundgarden's favor is Cornell's singing. He mercifully steers clear of obvious Robert Plant-isms, especially those orgasmic cries of "baby, baby, baby" that everyone from Ian Astbury of the Cult to David Coverdale of Whitesnake has beaten far into the ground. Cornell's a screamer all right, but he's his own kind of screamer most of the time. The one exception on Down on the Upside -- and it seems to be a fluke -- is the hard-driving, fuzzed-out tune "An Unkind," where his echo-laden vocals are oddly reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne circa "Crazy Train."
Cornell's lyrics -- and he does write most of the lyrics -- are another story. It used to be safe to assume that most of the words that came out of his mouth had to first get by a tongue that was at least partly planted in cheek, even if some Soundgarden fans were predisposed to take a song like "Big Dumb Sex" seriously as some kind of arena-rock anthem. (Cornell has never been particularly glib, but he has employed irony to good effect.) But the ominous, pseudo-mystical tone of Superunknown and Down on the Upside seems to be the outgrowth of a genuinely bleak, fevered imagination. There's nothing here to suggest Cornell spent too much time as a kid playing Dungeons & Dragons. But he does opt, regrettably, for the old "dog/god" inversion on "Never Named," a tune that's so pumped up with feedback and fuzztone guitars, you hardly notice the words.
He redeems himself with a turn of phrase on the disc's opening tune and first single, "Pretty Noose," where he drapes a memorable melody around the line "And I don't like what you got me hanging from." That sets the tone for an album full of imagery that's almost death-metal morbid, with lines like "The skulls beneath my feet. . . . I graze among the graves" ("Rhinosaur"), "So kill your health and kill yourself and kill everything you love" ("Burden in My Hand"), and "Hey you patients/Where's your surgeon/Left with your insides open" ("Switch Open").
Just how seriously does Cornell want to be taken when he sings a track like "Pretty Noose?" It's hard to say. But Soundgarden do seem to view a major part of their mission as keeping the modern world safe for long-haired stoner misfits who get high with all their alienated buddies in the parking lot after school. Fortunately, this is an approach that also has some resonance for the long-haired stoner misfit living inside anyone who's ever been exposed to massive amounts of '70s rock and three years of high school. And there are still a lot of us out here.
In that respect, Soundgarden are analogous to bands like Green Day and Rancid. The latter have latched onto the music of the late '70s as their inspiration; Soundgarden have worked up to the point where they can handle the hard rock of the earlier half of that decade. That Soundgarden and Rancid will be sharing a stage this summer shows how effectively those styles of music, which were once in diametric opposition to each other, have been divorced from their original contexts in today's alterna-rock culture.
Long hair? Short hair? They're now just two sides of the same coin. And Soundgarden have no reservations about which side they fall on. If there was ever a tension between punk and metal in Soundgarden's music, it's now been engulfed by the buzz of their overdriven hard-rock guitars. Thayil and Cornell don't have the blues training of a Jimmy Page or a Joe Perry, and it shows in the way they phrase their guitar solos. Thayil in particular should consider 12-step counseling to help wean him from his dependency on the wah-wah pedal. But they're also not encumbered by the reliance on turgid metal clichs that narrowed the focus of so many Zeppelin and Aerosmith acolytes. Down on the Upside segues cleanly from the dense, textured psychedelia of "Blow Up the Outside," which bears traces of mid-period Pink Floyd, to the acoustic guitar intro of the power ballad "Burden in My Hand," and then on to the fast and furious clamor of "Never Named" without once suggesting any links to what metal hardened into during the '80s.
Like any good '70s band, Soundgarden have simply responded to success by indulging some of their musical whims. (What else would you call In Through the Out Door or anything by Pink Floyd if not self-indulgent whimsy?) As a result, Down on the Upside, which the band produced without outside help, isn't as sharp, structured, or commercial as Superunknown. It really doesn't have to be. Some tracks on the 70-minute disc go on a little too long, others meander past the obvious hook, and one ("Applebite") is just an exercise in repetition with the vocals buried so deep in the mix that there's nothing to grab onto. But, hell, isn't that what made pre-punk hard rock fun in the first place? Soundgarden certainly think so. And if that doesn't win them any new fans, then it's a good bet they'll be happy with the several million they've already got.