Reprinted without permission from Rave, May 15-21,
SOUNDGARDEN: THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS
In late 1993 Chris Cornell described the musical growth of Soundgarden thus: "I think it's down to a process of metamorphosis of four different writers continually putting the music in the pot. Everybody changes a little bit, you know, as do their influences at the time, and it mutates the band pretty heavily." It's an analysis that was directed towards the differences between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, but applies equally well to their latest full length CD Down On The Upside.
It's one of the major unifying factors from album to album: if it's from Soundgarden, expect contradictions and explorations into new sonic territory. And things are always changing.
"Year by year and record by record, we have gone through this process of trying to dial into what we want to hear ourselves sound like at the moment," observed Cornell earlier this year. For '96, the sound is immediate and full of dualities and binary oppositions.
First up, the band dispensed with a producer and did the whole shebang themselves. Concurrently, their sonic signatures are more accurately conveyed. The drum sound doesn't sound like a shotgun, it sounds like a drum.
"The roughness wasn't a point of making a dirtier, more street version of what we usally do. It's about getting more accurate with recording," explains Cornell.
Many of the songs on the album ended up being replicas of demo versions, and the extensive overdubbing and meticulous nature of preparation that happened on Superunknown is nonexistent. As guitarist Kim Thayil comments, "This time we kept it from moving into overdub central. We did everything short of making it live."
Everything has been generated through a solid sense of musical instinct: if it sounds right, it is right. This unwavering faith in a musical vision has always separated Soundgarden from their contemporaries; they remain firmly apart from the generic and exonomic constraints of their environment while still attracting a massive base of fans and more then enough critical acclaim from around the world. Their position will only become stronger with Down On The Upside.
"Rhinosaur" belts along like a speeding Mack wich gathers momentum via a ferocious lead from Kim Thayil and some startling bass work, while "Blow Up The Outside World" is unlike anything they've done before, all clean guitar lines and some accoustic instrumentation mix with a trippy feel and exstential imagery.
"Burden In My Hand" opens with a Southern fried hook on an accoustic guitar and builds into a landscape of classic styled big rock. It's super catchy and guaranteed to be the pick for many a cover act. No wonder Kim Thayil half jokingly referred to the song as "Hey Joe for the nineties".
"Applebite" is a spiralling slow paced piece of instrumentation full of moog, piano and vocal tonalities that locks on target and doesn't let go. It's the best example of just how much experimentation is coming from the band, as Kim Thayil observes. "Some piano and there's little bits of trinkets and whatnot of percussion and things that we've probably never used before. We did alot of varied trips with amplification and a lot with vocals. I don't think there's many, maybe two or three songs, where the vocals are being sang straight into a normal microphone, the normal way. We did a lot of strange stuff that way we've never done before".
"No Attention" is all bludgeoning speed riffola and fuck you attitude that slowly mutates into a mid-paced thumpathon that swerves off track into a murky ditch; "Switch Opens" is a geometrically designed work that reaches out and doubles back several times with a melody akin to early Pink Floyd. It's smooth and seductive without being sleepy.
"Never The Machine Forever" is trad Soundgarden with a hook that creeps up on you, wacks you over the back of the end, and then slides into the background. The mood altering chord progessions that are one of the band's signatures are here and in other tunes such as "Overfloater". And while "Overfloater" is relatively muscular, the lyrics create a laid back existential and spiritual imagery.
"Dusty" is closer to Temple of the Dog then anything else, all fine melody and surging chorus, with a blunt lyrical message of optimism: 'I think it's turning back on me / Everything's easy / I think it's turning back on me / Everything's real to me'. The tune has great melodic progression that leads to a sense of completeness and harmony, and captures the band in full flight.
Then you've got "Ty Cobb," which is funnier than anything. First get a speedpunk sound and rhythm similar to your standard Orange County eighties punk band and then lay mandolin over the top doing the duelling banjo type o' thang. Who the hell nicknamed these guys Frowngarden anyway? Idiots!
All sixteen tracks are slides from the whole Soundgarden, show: structually complex and repetitive, emotional and intellectual. The band work off and with the contradictions to create their musical vision. it also goes a long way towards the reason for the album title: "Down On The Upside" encapsulates the openendedness of the bands movement down the paths they haven't perviously travelled. And it's worked.
"I sometimes perceive the record as having a dual nature," suggests Kim, "It keeps listeners on their toes and lets them know they're not getting the same album over and over."