Inarguably the heaviest and hardest rockin’ big name act of the grunge explosion, Seattle’s Soundgarden have nonetheless struggled to achieve the same cultural longevity as their peers since their dissolution in the late 90’s – their considerably legacy, it would appear, has been tragically buried under the weight of Kurt Cobain’s mythiccult of personality and Pearl Jam’s continued world domination.
Their dynamic, muscular sound melded vintage 70s rock riffery with punk aggression and complex, innovative time signatures – a match made in heaven for Chris Cornell’s expansive, earth-shattering vocals – and gave rise to some of the most iconic and original sounds of their era in the process. With a back catalogue ripe for re-discovery, we take a closer look at ten of the standout moments from their original run.
The band’s first single saw them firing on all cylinders right out of the gate and acted as a brief look at what was to come; anchored by an irresistible, low-slung bass groove, this dark piece of proto-grunge gets in and out within three minutes and takes no prisoners in the process. Backed by Kim Thayil’s idiosyncratic guitars – alternating between bone-crunching, down tuned riffs and scratchy harmonics – Cornell delivers a downright threatening story of being chased by dogs (“dogs lead the chase as you are bleeding/they run to hunt you down”) that shows signs of the nihilism that would soon become his brooding trademark.
All Your Lies
A diamond in the rough of their scrappy, underproduced debut, the frantic heavy metal assault of ‘All Your Lies’ shows the band members growing into their strengths: Thayil’s nimble guitar work, Cornell’s throaty howl, bolstered and carried by the dynamic rhythm section of Hiro Yamamoto and Matt Cameron on bass and drums, respectively. Though slightly derivative compared to their greatest works in hindsight, it still makes for a thrilling listen if you like your tunes fast and heavy.
Hands All Over
The highlight of their underrated sophomore effort ‘Louder than Love’, this blistering blues rock workout is where their rise to greatness truly starts. With Cornell’s banshee wail out in full force, on the surface ‘Hands All Over’ sounds like a straightforward sleazy rocker (albeit a fantastic one), but upon closer inspection its lyrics deal with human kind’s self-serving destruction of the environment. With this track, they were fast becoming a band with the double threat of brains and balls, and it’s one of the milestones that set them properly on the path to greatness.
Jesus Christ PoseFor many the ultimate Soundgarden track – featuring one of the most belligerent and punishing riffs ever committed to tape – this venomous thrasher is a takedown of those who use their religion to assert superiority over others (“and your stare at me in your Jesus Christ pose/arms held out like you’ve been carrying a load…”,goes its biting opening couplet). The song and its video were denounced by many as being anti-Christian – and it’s not surprising, given how cynical and antagonistic it still sounds even today.
A chugging, restless grunge stormer in the verses, with a light, airy chorus that allows the listener to come up for air sporadically – and that comes seemingly out of nowhere – ‘Outshined’ was the point where Soundgarden successfully learned how to marry their chest-beating guitar, bass and drum attack with a pop sensibility; this combination would be perfected on their next album, and the formidable results would make them a global sensation and radio mainstay for the remainder of the decade.
Whilst not a single, this six minute opus perhaps encapsulates the entire Black Sabbath-indebtedaesthetic of the ‘Badmotorfinger’ record than any other. A true slow-burning epic, the way Cornell’s vocals slowly work their way up from a croon to a shriek is spine-tinglingly effective – and whilst earlier albums sounded unforgiving in their own right, here they traded in speed and aggression for a hypnotic, bass-heavy grind that somehow winds up sounding even heavier.
Black Hole SunReleased at the height of the MTV phenomenon, the druggy, ominous video for ‘Black Hole Sun’ is as well remembered twenty years on as the song itself, which shows a suburban neighbourhood – full of nightmarish morphing faces – awaiting the titular black hole. Even without the video, though, the track itself screams ‘Beatles on a bad acid trip’ with a slow, 60s-influenced chord progression and apocalyptic subject matter. Uncharacteristic of much of their output until this point, it still managed to become their biggest hit – and helped make ‘Superunknown’ become one of the seminal albums of the whole grunge era.
My WaveOne of the lesser remembered singles from the mammoth ‘Superknown’, ‘My Wave’ is a shuffling, Zeppelin-esque stomp based on around the old adage “live and let live”. It’s especially worthy of note as Thayil’s jerky, off-kilter riff presents one of the few hip shaking moments on a record almost completely characterised by gloom – whilst Cornell flippantly assures everyone they can do whatever the fuck they want as long as it doesn’t get in his way (“don’t come over here/piss on my gate/save it, just keep it off my wave”).
In many respects the dark, doomy heart of ‘Superunknown’, this funereal dirge is sandwiched in the middle of the album’s marathon fifteen song run. Its eerie, crawling drone of a riff perfectly sets the mood for its menacing lyrics, which liken the eventual fall of the capitalist Western civilisation (more specifically, the USA) to the carnage of a crashed limousine. Listening back now in our post-9/11 world, the song becomes even spookier, with lines such as “building the towers, belongs to the sky/when the whole thing comes crashing down/don’t ask me why” foreshadowing how the world would change forever just a few short years later.
Soundgarden’s final record before their initial breakup, 1996’s ‘Down on the Upside’, was -and continues to be – controversial among fans of the band, with its lighter sound leaning more towards alternative rock and psychedelia than the powerhouse grunge that characterised their biggest releases. Lead single ‘Pretty Noose’, however, remains one of their crowning achievements: a churning, kaleidoscopic rocker about the perils of a poisonous relationship (“Pretty noose is pretty pain,”Cornell sings wearily throughout, “and I don’t like what you got me hangin’ from.”) It’s one of the album’s more successful experiments, and has made its way into their set lists fairly regularly since their reunion.
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