Sometimes I really surprise myself.
When considering “perfect” albums, many jump out right away. Siamese Dream, the 1993 release from The Smashing Pumpkins, was not one of those albums.
Like so many others, I saw Billy Corgan and company as a bit of a one-trick pony. Corgan’s voice is something I have to absorb in relatively small doses. There are no Smashing Pumpkins marathons in my home. For me, a little of this band goes a long way. But brilliance is brilliance, and taken on its own merit and in context, Siamese Dream is brilliant! It will no doubt be continuously lumped in with the rest of the “grunge” movement of the early 90’s. Yet I’m not sure how accurate that is. I’m quicker to feel this record as an extension of the 70’s heavy metal scene. But even that only paints a small portion of the overall picture.
We should have seen Siamese Dream coming. All the evidence was presented in Gish, the Pumpkin’s ‘91 release. All the elements were there: wicked guitar tones from Corgan and James Iha; the steady bass grooves provided by D’Arcy Wretzky; and the at-times otherworldly drumming of Jimmy Chamberlin. Each element was a key ingredient in a spicy, but tasty, sonic soup. If someone wanted to make an argument in favor of Gish’s perfection, I would be slow to argue against it.
Still, Siamese Dream feels like Gish taken to the next level. The band’s playing is sharper, there are more dynamics to be found, some of the songs have a nearly progressive rock-like attitude like Black Sabbath collaborating with Rush. The sound is, in a word, fearless.
One key element to both albums cannot be ignored, and it comes from the Producer’s chair. Butch Vig (who also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind) knew exactly what he was doing with the Pumpkins. He gave them a the ideal sonic palate to paint from, and the band used every color marvelously. Vig helps the band bring more “thunder” from the bass frequencies, which only makes the guitars and drums sound better (particularly on the 2011 remaster).
That being said, this is not a “feel good” album. Siamese Dream exists to help you work through some stuff! There is nothing bright and cheery about Corgan’s vocal tone, which is derided by more than a few. But Corgan is a Rush fan, so he’s heard these kind of complaints before. So, full speed ahead!
First impressions are everything, and few make a better one than “Cherub Rock.” Chamberlin’s drum rolls open the show, followed quickly by a clean treble-pickup riff inspired by Rush. Now that the groove has been established, it’s time to dig in. Here comes the heavily overdriven guitar and monster bass line. And we’re off and running!
The second song, “Quiet,” is anything but. Rather, it is a confirmation of the opener’s sonic onslaught. But the album is marvelously paced, and the near-suicide inspired “Today” gives the body time to breathe, even as the mind continues to be hammered on.
Speaking of which, both “Hammer” and “Rocket” allow the Pumpkins to settle into a nice groove, and pretty much establish the rest of the album’s tempo. And while “Disarm” might be a glorious sonic shift, the tempo remains.
The use of dynamics really comes into play on “Soma,” a song that begins with a sense of tenderness that almost belies the rest of the album’s tone. But not to worry … it doesn’t last. Corgan and Iha cut loose in the song’s midsection with heavy guitar ruffing and feedback before falling back to the opening’s mood.
“Geek U.S.A.” feels like the band stretching out toward that prog realm, with the guitar chemistry on full display propelled forward by a thunderous rhythm section. The tightness of this sound cannot be overstated.
Things reach their crescendo with “Silverfuck,” the band’s attempt at an “epic,” according to Corgan. I say mission accomplished, albeit in dark and twisted fashion.
“Sweet Tooth” and “Luna” provide the ideal wind-down, enabling us to process what we have been hearing for the past hour. As the last notes fade into the either, we breathe a sigh of relief. We have survived the onslaught. And we are better people for it.
Of course, brilliance has backlash. And now that the Pumpkins were international superstars, the trappings of said fame came into play. Drugs, personality conflicts, and the relative bloat of the band’s follow-up, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — which is still a solid album — signaled the beginning of the end. The Smashing Pumpkins have never really gone away, but they’ve never been quite the same.
But that’s rock and roll in a nutshell, isn’t it? So rather than focus on what could have been, I offer what is. And from where I’m sitting, Siamese Dream is the definitive statement of a groundbreaking band.
It is perfect.
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