Reprinted without permission from The Boston Phoenix,
March 4, 1994
Soundgarden have come through with the great Led Zeppelin album they've been threatening to put out since 1988's Ultramega OK (SST) made it cool for postpunk bands to cop riffs from Houses of the Holy. Superunknown, their fourth release not counting EPs, and their third album on A&M, starts out like their others: with Kim Thayil working a massive, piledriving riff against a muscular, headbanging rhythm section and Chris Cornell wailing like a banshee about some deep, dark, mystical truth. But there's something different and much better about the execution of "Let Me Drown." For starters, it's leaner and less claustrophobic, which gives drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd the room they need to sustain dynamic tension. It also opens things up for Cornell and Thayil, who infuse their bombast with a newfound and very appealing melodic sensibility.
Soundgarden have always had the muscle to pull off a hundred variations on the riff from "Dazed and Confused," but until now they haven't been limber enough to match the rich psychedelic textures and gentle melodies that made Led Zeppelin great. As punk descendants, they've avoided some of arena rock's more loathsome tendencies, like drum solos and Stonehenge lore. Yet memorable songs, one thing the dinosaurs of the '70s had going for them, have eluded Soundgarden.
In that sense, Superunknown isn't just an improvement; it's a songwriting breakthrough that leads the band in promising new directions. Cornell and Thayil unleash plenty of their heavy-metal thunder, but this time Cameron and Shepherd, who tapped their own creative potential with the side project Hater, get a chance to contribute. Shepherd, in particular, provides two spaced-out oddities ("Head Down" and "Half"), which are valuable diversions on this 70-minute-plus tour de force.
As if to prove they can do it better now before moving on to new frontiers, the band revisit familiar turf with the raging, near-thrash punk of "Kickstand," the sluggish, gothic grind of "4th of July," and another derivation of the descending "Dazed and Confused" riff ("Limo Wreck"), which unfortunately sports the most overwrought, apocalyptic lyrics ("I'm the wreck of you/I'm the death of you"). All three benefit from more confident, relaxed pacing, mature arrangements, and sophisticated production that captures the visceral kick of raw, overdriven guitars and thundering drums without muddying the mix. Michael Beinhorn, who shares production credit with the band, also helped Minneapolis alternative-rock vets Soul Asylum refine their punkish attack when he worked the board fr their 1992 breakthrough, Grave Dancer's Union (Columbia).
Vornell, who's proven he can scream with the best of them, deploys his Robert Plant-isms sparingly, leaving enough headroom to take songs like "Limo Wreck" up another tick on the emotional meter when Thayil's sinewy lead merges with the chorus at the end of the tune. And as relentlessly dark and grungy as Thayil's guitar gets on "4th of July," it never eclipses Cornell's mournful, prayer-like vocal melody.
Still, Superunknown's most fulfilling trackes are the pared-down rockers and the outright departures. "Fell on Black Days" takes a Bad Company chord progression, adds a challenging rhythmic stutter, and drives it home on a fat bass/drum groove. The song's descending, Eastern-tinged refrain provides an unexpected melodic respite and gives Cameron a chance to indulge in some great Bonham-style pounding. On "My Wave," a live-and-let-live surfer diatribe, Thayil layers a couple irresistible counter-rhythmic hooks over an already catchy stop-and-start chord pattern.
Even more refreshing for their nearly Beatles-like psychedelic tunefulness are "Black Hole Sun" and "Like Suicide." Although both settle on rather gloomy lyrical turf--depression and suicide, respectively--their music treads lighter than your usual Soundgarden fare. With its weepy, vibrato-guitar arpeggios and spare drums, the verses on "Black Hole Sun" pave the way for a gloriously pounding metallic chorus that should keep headbangers happy. "Like Suicide" similarly builds from a poignant ballad into a satisfying cymbal-crashing climax, replete with a majestic guitar solo that's made for arenas.
The disc's real centerpiece is the title track. A raging slab of kick-ass hard rock, it revels in the band's newfound creativity with the repeated chorus "Alive in the superunknown," and it combines all the best elements of punk, metal, and psychedelia in one convincing package. It's here that the guitars of Thayil and Cornell intertwine around a churning, blues-derived chord progression reminiscent of Rocks-era Aerosmith, the bass and drums kick into high gear, and Soundgarden simply outshine the competition.