(Photo by Michael Lavine)
Want to start a musical argument? Bring up Grunge sometime.
Few musical forms have been as divisive as the hard rock meets metal meets punk (on top of god-knows what else) that started in Seattle in the late 80’s to early 90’s, depending on who you ask. People seem to absolutely love Grunge (a darker, more introspective form of rock than the party-centric “hair metal” that came right before it) or they absolutely hate it.
I’m in the former camp, though it took me a minute to get there.
I was stationed in Japan when Nirvana’s Nevermind took over the world in 1991. I was gobsmacked by what I heard, but I was also entering the early stages of my “jazz is everything” period of listening.
It was only after leaving the military and returning to St. Louis that I became aware of music’s “Alternative” movement, which became the chosen format of a new local radio station, KPNT (105.7 the Point) in February of ’93. I was completely over Classic Rock, so it was great to be presented with a newer, heavier, modern rock form.
The heaviest sounds were coming from bands like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, and this band calling itself Soundgarden.
The commercial music world was slightly a-tither over the band’s 1991 release, Badmotorfinger. Songs like “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose” were blasting out of speakers everywhere. It was a great record.
I barely noticed.
That would change in ’94, when Soundgarden dropped a new album called Superunknown. We’d had our foundations shaken by Nevermind. Now it was happening again.
Fifteen tracks. Seventy minutes. Not one ounce of fat! I hate to use the phrase “all killer, no filler,” but … yeah.
The band dialed back the heavy of Badmotorfinger by about 10 percent. Just enough to make their heavy more radio-friendly. It worked. The radio couldn’t stop playing tracks from Superunknown. Even the Classic Rock station got onboard!
Soundgarden found the sound that suited them best. Lead vocalist Chris Cornell (owner of arguably the best voice in Grunge) stopped screaming and started singing. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil taught players and fans about alternate tunings, usually drenched in chorus and reverb when he wasn’t soloing full throttle. Ben Shepherd’s bass rumbled with enough strength to rattle the breakables and leave gut-punched fans doubled over. Drummer Matt Cameron would’ve fit in nicely with the progressive rock bands I enjoyed, with his polyrhythms flying all over the place. (How talented is Cameron? When Soundgarden went on extended hiatus, he up and joined Pearl Jam. And made them sound better!)
Producer Michael Beinhorn no doubt deserves a boatload of credit for helping the band dial in their heavy-yet-melodic balance. The album establishes itself from the opening riff of “Let Me Drown” and doesn’t let up until the reverb-drenched close of “Like Suicide” more than an hour later.
Highlights for this album are hard to choose, because EVERYTHING rocks! The killer stutter-step riff that opens “My Wave”; the open-ended groove behind “Fell On Black Days”; the vicious growl behind “4th of July” … there’s something to love in every tune.
My top three? Well, there’s the ultra-cool descending riff on “The Day I Tried to Live,” beautifully accompanied by Cameron’s drums. Speaking of drums, it’s hard to top Cameron’s 6/4 break in “Spoonman,” made even better by Shepherd’s bass groove after the drummer shifts back to 4/4.
That would be my favorite moment on the record, had it not been for the song before it.
One of the most earth-shattering, highly emotional songs of the decade is “Black Hole Sun.” Not quite heavy enough for head-banging, too introspective for a screaming vocal, featuring a deeply chorused series of arpeggios from Thayhil (after his e-bowed ethereal opening riff), this was the perfect vehicle for Cornell’s tortured voice, which he uses to bare his soul.
This song is impossible to ignore. The world comes to a screeching halt when it plays. Well, mine does anyway (so does Steve Vai’s). It is beauty, pain, pathos, and release. Its lyrics (“Hang my head, drown my fear/’Til you all just disappear”) should have told us just how fragile Cornell’s psyche really was. Eventually, we would learn the hard way.
The album’s closer, “Like Suicide,” now hits too close to home since Cornell took his own life in May of 2017. His was a slow burn, and Lord only knows how many clues he dropped over the years. Maybe we just wanted to believe that beautiful, pained voice was schtick, an onstage personae. It wasn’t.
Soundgarden never achieved that level of album quality again. It’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle once, let alone twice. Soundgarden gave us an absolute classic that will be tough to equal.
Haters, say what you want about the music of the 90’s. But Superunknown transcends the decade AND the genre. It is the epitome of rock and roll.
And it. Is. PERFECT.
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