Soundgarden always got everything right – except their name. The band who first played grunge, even before that musical microcosm had a name or locale, Soundgarden unleashed their muddy blend of heavy metal and slowly-paced sludge rock in the late-1980s, at a time where most metal either resorted to the pop inflections of Poison and their brethren or the stripped-down brute intensity of Guns ‘N’ Roses. The SOUND part the band certainly conveyed as this new form of rock was unlike anything that came before it and communicated a specific soundscape that would become widely popularized in the early 1990s with bands including most famously Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and many others. But the GARDEN aspect never quite made sense. The term garden communicates serenity, peace, introspection and meditation. Soundgarden wrote and recorded about black days, sunshine washing away the rain of the Pacific Northwest, behaving suicidally, and inhabiting rusty cages, with music that underscored those sentiments. They should have really been called Soundswamp.
But an odd phenomenon befell the band. After their early work in the 1980s on Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, the indie label who sprang so many Seattle-area bands thereafter, they released albums that became increasingly more streamlined, accessible, and distinct. In favor of the buzzing sounds of Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love, both of which were represented at the LA Forum concert on June 22, the band ascended to new heights with the improved songwriting of 1991’s Badmotorfinger, released into the foray of Nirvana’s multiplatinum Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. Those latter two albums may have trumped Badmotorfinger, but Soundgarden was not finished climbing their own fabricated musical mountain. And those mountains were sizable in the 1990s, arguably the greatest decade for American bands in rock history, especially those who began life as independent label signees. In 1994, Soundgarden released the superb Superunknown, even better than Badmotorfinger and transcending the grunge ethic into merely great sounding edgy but catchy rock and roll. Not satisfied with the successes of their first two 1990s albums, Soundgarden went a step further, outdoing themselves with Down on the Upside in 1996, their all-time best collection of songs, pushing the sound established on Superunknown into Beatles-esque territory. In fact, other than the Beatles and a select few others in rock history, it is a challenge to name another act who kept improving their sound and writing with each successive album. While many a band blow their hand in their first record and struggle to catch up with the next efforts, Soundgarden consistently honed and refined their style through those five albums, creating more interesting songs, musical approaches, and sonic textures in the process.
Alas, the phenomenon did not last, as the band called it quits after the Down on the Upside period, with singer Chris Cornell going onto solo work then several underwhelming outings with Audioslave, despite that band’s enormous potential. Guitarist and aural mastermind Kim Thayil did not start a new band over the past 15 years, instead choosing to guest on various musician friends’ projects. Drummer Matt Cameron joined various bands, including a lengthy stint in Pearl Jam (currently, he is officially a member of both Pearl Jam AND Soundgarden). Lastly, bassist Ben Shepherd, who came to Soundgarden later than his bandmates but became a key songwriter, also guested on others’ projects, much like Thayil, but did not permanently join any one band. Thus, a Soundgarden reunion was inevitable. Cornell has surely been the busiest with band and solo work and tours, but in 2010, when his schedule finally freed up, the stage was literally set for a full-blown Soundgarden reunion, starting with a major tour.
Filling 90% of the Los Angeles Forum, which is scheduled to be turned into a religious facility, much to Cornell’s chagrin as he noted onstage, the concert unfolded as if Soundgarden were performing again in 1996. Thayil might have a grayer goatee and Shepherd might have visibly aged in several ways, but Cameron still has a youthful energetic appearance and approach to playing his modest drum kit, and the whole band still brings their original idiosyncratic tones throughout the show. Thayil’s distorted gloomy Black Sabbath-inflected playing ranks him among rock’s most underrated. And Shepherd, who might sport the lowest-slung bass in music, with apologies to Pete Way, brings a distorted fuzz approach to the instrument that appropriately complements Thayil. That leaves Cornell, who just turned 47, but has apparently not lost a beat. There might have been a bit too much echo added to his vocals at the show, but the man can still hit the notes that first made him one of rock’s most unique, powerful, and melodic vocalists. Other than Rob Halford and a select few others (Ted Neely?), Cornell has retained his pipes as well as any other middle-aged singer with no clear quality loss. Most evident at the LA show on “The Day I Tried to Live” from Superunknown, Cornell can blast out his identifiable high-pitched wails in a chorus right amongst the melodic tones of a song’s verses.
Of note, Superunknown was the most utilized album at the gig, with nine songs played, followed by Badmotorfinger with six songs, and Louder than Love with four. Strangely, the band only conjured two songs from Down on the Upside, the same count as from Ultramega OK. This approach surely catered to original Soundgarden fans, and Cornell proudly announced a song, “Hunted Down,” from their Screaming Life/Fopp EP in their earliest Sup Pop days, but also added a new song, “Black Rain” a lone original track from their retrospective set from last year, Telephantasm.
Now that Soundgarden has re-established themselves as a viable reunited group, and with this tour cementing their presence and catalogue material, ostensibly for an entirely new generations of fans, it is the forthcoming album, due later this year and announced by Cornell onstage, that will surely gauge the status of the band after a 15-year time loss. If the trend of increasingly high quality albums continues, Soundgarden fans should be in for an anticipated delight when the new album debuts, filling in an arduous long-held gap. One hopes that there will be no further similar lapses in Soundgarden’s output in the future.
Postscript: It is said something always interesting happens at concerts in LA. In the fall of 2009, at Pearl Jam’s four-show sold-out stint at the Gibson Amphitheater in Universal City, Chris Cornell came onstage to join singer Eddie Vedder and the band for the duet “Hunger Strike” from Temple of the Dog, the tribute album to fallen Seattle singer Andrew Wood. At the July 22 show, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, that band’s primary guitarist and key songwriter, joined Soundgarden for the rollicking title track Superunknown. Like Thayil, McCready is largely unappreciated but is responsible for much of the music in Pearl Jam’s impressive body of work.
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Set list for Soundgarden at the LA Forum – July 22, 2011
Searching With My Good Eye Closed
Jesus Christ Pose
Room a Thousand Years Wide
Blow Up the Outside World
Big Dumb Sex
Fell on Black Days
The Day I Tried to Live
Burden in My Hand
Black Hole Sun
Superunknown (with Mike McCready from Pearl Jam)
4th of July
Beyond the Wheel
Slaves & Bulldozers