Reprinted without permission from The Rocket, May 15,
WELCOME TO THE SONIC HOTHOUSE
Soundgarden have been making records for 12 years. That's right, 12 years, releasing songs on C/Z (1985), Sub Pop (1987), and SST (1988) berfore signing with A&M and putting out Louder Than Love (1989), Badmotorfinger (1991), and 1994's ultra-mega-triple-platinum Superunknown. You'd figure by now these guys would had learned how to make records, right?
Yes indeed, and Down on the Upside is easily their best recording to date. Soundgarden are a confident band at the peak of their creative powers. And now, a brief technical aside: Jesus, can these guys play.
After spending a couple of days listening to their last four records as a warmup, I opened the plastic case of the advance cassette, slipped it into my Walkman, and hit "play." Incidentally, I think all music reviewers should work from these generic cassettes: No artwork or lyric sheets to ponder, no production credits, only the names of the songs on white card stock as if the Lord was telling us all, "It's the music, stupid."
It is hard to exaggerate how huge and powerful this record sounds. Who is responsible for achieving this giant production value? This time around Soundgarden chose to produce themselves, assisted by engineer Adam Kaspar, who better rest now while he still has a chance.
No band is entirely without musical influences, and much of Down on the Upside owes a debt to the best ideas of Led Zeppelin. This is no way a putdown; both Zep and Soundgarden have great singers, use complex time signatures without anyone noticing, approach the studio fearlessly, often play in modal tunings, and create seamless drum/bass/guitar figures.
Each song on Down on the Upside has a distinct atmosphere and plenty of the expected big riffs, played on guitar, mandolin and (on "Ty Cobb") what sounds like a banjo. Supporting this vast galaxy of guitar textures are drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, who build on their instruments a structure comparable to Seattle's landmark Gasworks Park: solid, elaborate, and very much there.
A wise man once said that writting about music is like singing about baseball. How true. Until this release is available in stores and you can hear it for yourself, live through this:
"Pretty Noose" -- starts with a guitar intro that would be perfect as the soundtrack to Prelude to a Technicolor Yawn and powers up from there. "I cought the moon today/Pick it up and throw it away all right...Fallout and take the bait/Eat the fruit/And kiss the snake goonight..." leading to the chorus: "And I don't like what you got me hangin' from."
"Rhinosaur" -- a great, high energy 6/8 cruncher with one of those classic, "I could have written that" (but you didn't) lopsided drum/bass/guitar riffs. "Only happy when you hurt/Only deadly in a swarm/Only healthy in the dirt/Only empty in your arms..."
"Zero Chance" -- it took Soundgarden nine years before they recorded a ballad ("Fell on Black Days") and here's another velvet fist featuring intricately arranged mandolin/acoustic/electric guitar and great big drums. "They say if you look hard/You'll find your way back home/Born without a friend/And bound to die alone."
"Dusty" -- seductive Zep-like chord riff with acoustic guitar. "I think it's turning back around/And I think I like it... I think it's turning back on me/I'm down on the upside." Killer shaker overdub.
"Ty Cobb" -- starts with a highly misleading mandolin noodle straight into a fast, wall of sound Foggy Mountain Breakdown-like thrash anthem featuring more mandolin, an the chorus, "Hard headed fuck you all/Hard headed fuck you all/Hard headed fuck you all/Just add it on the hot rod death toll." Everybody!
"Blow up the Ousdide World" -- slow, mellow, and paisley with heavily processed vocals. "Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try... Nothing seems to break me/No mater how hard I fall nothing can break me at all," leading into a searing "Blow up the outside/Blow up the outside/Blow up the outside world."
Burden in My Hand" -- "Follow me into the desert/As thirsty as you are/Crack a smile and cout your mouth/And drown in alcohol" Heavy vocal processing, acoustic guitar/big fuitar chorus, then the drums kick in and the song struts and rolls, builds and swaggers... then just ends.
"Never Named" -- fast and very punky. "I had a dog he was a mix/he loved me like God/But I was just a kid... I'm just a baby who looks like a boy/I'm getting depressed." The song ends side one with these words: "And I'll keep hanging from your hair/And I'll keep playing in the sand/Just as long as I can."
"Applebite" -- Soundgarden is obviously a band that jams, and when they find a groove they work it. Moog oscillators, slow hypnotic beat with a sixnote guitar pattern and a heavily processed vocals. "Everything fits/Even the wrist on your arm/Grow and decay/Grow and decay." Dangerous.
"Never the Machine Forever" -- a high energy 9/8 romp with sizzling, melt-the tape vocals... "Get up/Get off/Get on with your life."
"Tighter and Tighter" -- slow, hazy, heavy, bluesy feel reminiscent of Robin Trower's "Bridge of Sighs," with a sinuous, shimmering vocal chorus: "And I hope it's a sweet ride/Sleep tight for me/Sleep tight for me, I'm gone," ending with "'Cuz I feel I'm going/Feel I'm slowing down." This song alone demonstrates why Cornell is easily one of rock's best vocalists. It even has an ending.
"No Attention" -- a high energy, loopy, punky kiss-off to authority that makes this record, among other things, fun listening: "They're gonna tell you where to walk/When to smile and just what to say/...So say what what you want, suck all my life/Suck on my brain... And I'll pay no attention/No attention." Guitarist Thayil sounds like a 17-year-old punk-rocker with technique on this one.
"Switch Opens" -- another beautifully misleading intro into an Eastern flavored, up-tempo number with a chiming hook. nice harmonies, and a very odd division of the beat.
"Overfloater" -- slow, in a minor mode, Zep meets "Come Together" with a touch of Savoy Brown, hypnotic Rhodes electric piano, and atmospheric harmonies: "Close the door and pull the shades/Climb the walls... And nothing's going to pinch this nerve of mine... Hold the potion up/Tear your shadow down/Remember to forget and then rename your shame...." A hypnotic chorus in 14/4: "I wanna make it right/I wanna make it right."
"An Unkind" -- Rush, King Crimson and Mott the Hoople in a three-way tie. Fast, and about something.
"Boot Camp" -- dreamy, Pink Floyd on Prozac: "I must obey the rules/I must be tame and cool/No staring at the clouds/I must stay on the ground... There must be something else/There must be something good/Far away/Far away from here/... When I leave here for good/For good..."
The giant sucking sound you're about to hear is radio rushing to put this album on the air.