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Soundgarden

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Rivalling fellow Seattle grunge pioneers GREEN RIVER and consequentially the group’s fruitful offshoots MOTHER LOVE BONE, MUDHONEY and the mighty PEARL JAM, Sub Pop’s metal-meisters SOUNDGARDEN developed their beefy blues reminiscent of BLACK SABBATH or LED ZEPPELIN in their heyday.
Formed in the Washington capital in 1984 by lead singer Chris Cornell, bassist Hiro Yamamoto and lead guitarist Kim Thayil, college was abandoned for heavy music as gradually they struck a chord with the latter’s former high school buddy, and soon-to-be mastermind behind the Sub Pop fanzine-cum-label, Bruce Pavitt. With the addition in ’86 of drummer Matt Cameron (Scott Sundquist had played originally), SOUNDGARDEN became one of the first to record for Pavitt’s fledgling indie imprint, releasing the `Hunted Down’ 7” in summer ‘87. Two EPs, `Screaming Life’ and `Fopp’ followed soon afterwards, the latter title track stemming from The OHIO PLAYERS song (GREEN RIVER’s `Swallow My Pride’ was another cover), were well-received in their own backyard; but the band were looking to expand their horizons.
Knowing that there was interest from the majors, California’s burgeoning punk/hardcore independent S.S.T. hooked them in for their debut album, ULTRAMEGA OK (1988) {*6}. Despite its lack of focus, the record laid the foundations for what was to follow; a swamp-rich miasma of snail-paced, bass-crunch uber-riffing, wailing vocals and punk attitude shot through with bad-trip psychedelia (i.e. not something to listen to last thing at night). “His highness” Cornell was on top form on the likes of `Flower’ (also a single), `Nazi Driver’ and the sludgy `Beyond The Wheel’, but the need for experimental meanderings, a cover of HOWLIN’ WOLF’s `Smokestack Lightning’ and a screechy LENNON-esque “One Minute Silence” as addendum, all too often it generated frustration; Kim was behind the speed-metal vocals on `Circle Of Power’.
With the Grammy-nominated LOUDER THAN LOVE (1989) {*7}, the group’s major label debut for A&M, SOUNDGARDEN harnessed their devilish wares onto infectious melodies and “fuck-off” choruses; one listen to the likes of Ozzy-cloned `Ugly Truth’, the haunting `Hands All Over’, `Loud Love’ and the tongue-in-cheek brilliance of `Big Dumb Sex’ was enough to convince listeners that these hairy post-metallers were destined for big, grunge-type things. Success wasn’t immediate however, the album failing to make a dent beyond the Sub-Pop in-crowd and a few adventurous metal fans. Yamamoto departed soon after the record’s release, his replacement being ex-NIRVANA guitarist Jason Everman, who was in turn, succeeded by Ben Shepherd.
In the meantime, Cornell and Cameron duly got together as TEMPLE OF THE DOG with future PEARL JAM members, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready were guests) on a one-off tribute album project dedicated to the passing in March 1990 of MOTHER LOVE BONE’s frontman Andrew Wood. With both PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN breaking through among the raft of post-NIRVANA outfits, the eponymous set went Top 5 in 1992.
SOUNDGARDEN, meanwhile, finally got their piece of chart action later toward the fall of ‘91 when third album, BADMOTORFINGER {*8} dented the Top 40 (Britain was equally enamoured the following spring). An more accessible proposition, the record combined a tighter, stoner-driven sound with pop/grunge hooks and their trademark cerebral lyrics to create such MTV favourites as `Jesus Christ Pose’ (a Top 30 hit in the UK) and `Outshined’. Lead-off track and minor hit, `Rusty Cage’, was another juggernaut riff-a-thon, while `Searching With My Good Eye Closed’ meted out some of the most brutal psychedelia this side of MONSTER MAGNET. A high profile support slot on GUNS N’ ROSES’ “Use Your Illusion” tour afforded the band valuable exposure in the States, their crossover appeal endearing them to the metal hordes on both sides of the Atlantic.
In between schedules, Ben and Matt took time away from the heavy SOUNDGARDEN to moonlight in HATER, a band featuring MONSTER MAGNET’s guitarist John McBain, plus a loose collective that included the late Andrew Wood’s brother Brian and bassist John Waterman (both from Devilhead). The eponymous HATER (1993) {*5} took on a garage-rock mode incorporating elements of balladry from the pens of CAT STEVENS (`Mona Bone Jakon’) and BILLY EDD WHEELER (`Blistered’). HATER released “The 2nd Set” independently twelve years later.
Previewed by the UK Top 20 `Spoonman’ single, SOUNDGARDEN’s masterful fourth set, the double SUPERUNKNOWN (1994) {*9}, finally gave the group long overdue success, scaling the US charts and going Top 5 in Britain. Constructed around a head-spinning foundation of acid-drenched retro-rock and JIM MORRISON-esque doom, this epic album spawned the Grammy-winning `Black Hole Sun’, while `Fell On Black Days’ stands as one of their most realised pieces of warped psychedelia to date. Paranoid, tense and mind-bending, the quartet had bridged the gap between sledgehammer sludge and sonic songcraft, the Zeps and the Sabs of this earth bowing to Cornell’s vocal gymnastics on `The Day I Tried To Live’, `Let Me Drown’ and their “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”-like title track.
Following a world tour with the likes of SMASHING PUMPKINS, the metal quartet began work on DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996) {*6}. Another marathon double-set boasting sixteen tracks, the record inevitably failed to garner the plaudits of its predecessor; the claustrophobia of old had given way to a marginally more straightforward melodic grunge sound, evidenced to best effect on the likes of best-by-far `Burden In My Hand’. Subversive was still the key word; `Ty Cobb’s mutant country-punk and gonzoid expletive-filled attitude was reminiscent of MINISTRY’s seminal “Jesus Built My Hotrod”. Opener `Pretty Noose’ and fellow UK hit, `Blow Up The Outside World’ were also highlights, as was the softer `Zero Chance’, but the album ultimately proved to be their swansong as SOUNDGARDEN were pushing up the daisies as of April ‘97.
While Matt went off to form WELLWATER CONSPIRACY and take up his position in PEARL JAM, CHRIS CORNELL (now in his mid-30s!) returned as a solo artist a few years later. Although a largely timid soft-rock debut, `Euphoria Morning’ (1999) – featuring the JEFF BUCKLEY tribute, `Wave Goodbye’ – saw the man lose his “metal” credentials. However, the frontman resurfaced – on and off – via post-RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE project, AUDIOSLAVE; their eponymous debut hitting the Top 20 late 2002.
And then just as one’d thought they’d heard the last of SOUNDGARDEN, the group surfaced once again in 2010/2011, mainly to promote sales of a “best of” and future “live” compilations. The latter of these LIVE ON I-5 (2011) {*6} – recorded between Del Mar, Seattle and Oakland late in ’96 – featured two renditions by way of The BEATLES’ `Helter Skelter’ and IGGY & THE STOOGES’ `Search And Destroy’.
Over the years, the mighty ‘Garden have proved worthy cover merchants through the likes of mainly B-sides: `Into The Void’ tune-only (BLACK SABBATH), `Stray Cat Blues’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Big Bottom’ (SPINAL TAP), `Earache My Eye’ (CHEECH & CHONG), `I Can’t Give You Anything’ (RAMONES), `Homicidal Suicide’ (BUDGIE), `I Don’t Care About You’ (The FEAR), `Girl U Want’ (DEVO), `Can You See Me’ (JIMI HENDRIX), `Come Together’ (The BEATLES).
With a never-say-die attitude and willingness to return at one stage, 2012 would mark a testing time for the re-formed SOUNDGARDEN. Unavailable on their long-awaited “comeback” set, KING ANIMAL {*7}, `Live To Rise’ was produced for Hollywood blockbuster, Avengers Assemble, and a tempting taster of what was to come. Not far removed from their pre-grunge punk days in terms of volatile angst and paranoia, Cornell, Shepherd, Thayil and Cameron put together an explosive Top 5 set of pseudo-psychedelic dirges. Up on the downside (or even vice-versa), `Been Away Too Long’, `Non-State Actor’ and `A Thousand Days Before’, exhumed a SOUNDGARDEN of old, while there were soft touches in `Halfway There’ and `Black Saturday’.
In 2015, SOUNDGARDEN announced their intentions for another comeback and, by spring 2017 all looked well as fresh tracks from a prospective set were performed live. Sadly, on May 18, Chris died; the cause as yet unknown.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Aug2012-May2017

 

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