By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
What happens when you take the dark sludgy riff of Black Sabbath, combine them with the mystique and high-pitched shrills of Led Zeppelin, add in a pinch of psychedelia before slamming it through a filter of punk? Soundgarden is what happens.
Formed in Seattle in 1984, Soundgarden were among the first of the “grunge” acts. Combining the sounds of early 70’s British heavy metal and early 80’s American punk and alternative, Soundgarden had carved a unique niche in the local underground, quickly attracting the attention of emerging Seattle record label, Sub Pop.
By the late 80’s, Soundgarden were the first of their peers to land a major record label deal, signing with A&M. Their second LP Louder Than Love sold over 250,000 copies and their follow up, 1992’s Badmotorfinger, would go gold.
By the time of Badmotorfinger‘s release, the grunge movement had already begun to sweep American like a plague. The Glam/pop metal of the 80’s had all but disappeared by the early 90’s, as a more cynical, intellectual and anti-establishment musical movement took hold. And ttrailing in the footsteps of breakthrough Seattle acts Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden were poised to soon take the reigns.
By 1994, grunge was at the height of its popularity. So much so, that many of the genre’s pioneers had declared the scene “dead.” However, that wasn’t the case, especially for who was arguably the genre/scene’s founding entity.
Soundgarden took the alternative scene by storm in 1994, releasing their iconic masterpiece, Superunknown. The album was their most concise work to date, with songs that showcased both maturity and a fierceness of a band at the peak of their prime. The sound and production, thanks largely to producer Terry Date, was thick and full, yet the raw primal energy is still very obvious. It’s well-produced without being over-produced. Overall, Superunknown stands as a clear indicator that Soundgarden had grown comfortably into their own skin.
The album kicks off with the droning sludging riff of “Let Me Drown,” a common sentiment of the grunge mentality. However, the second track almost trades the trademark angst for a Zeppelin-esque crooner with a funky, yes funky, bass line on “My Wave.” The single “Fell on Black Days,” follows, with implementations of odd time signatures and Eastern rhythms, the song may be the most diverse grunge radio hit of all time, as it still can be heard all over active rock radio. From there, the heavy and undeniably catchy riffs of “Mailman” and “Superunknown” before leading into the mystically manic depressive “Head Down.”
The next track would prove to be their biggest, perhaps definitive song. “Black Hole Sun,” with its use of the common loud-quiet-loud grunge formula with a psychedelic twist, has become a staple for rock radio and the band’s live set list. The accompanying music video, complete with face-distorting and the death of the planet, became an instant hit, and is widely considered one of the most artistic videos ever produced. Following it is the almost equally-iconic “Spoonman.” Written about a local performer named Artis the Spoonman, he is featured on both the track and music video.
Two of Superunknown‘s darkest tracks, “Limo Wreck” and the single “The Day I Tried to Live,” begin side two with a slower and darker lyrical take. The punkish “Kickstand” breaks the tension before “Fresh Tendrils” and the doom-y “4th of July” encompass the listener. Another Eastrn-style track “Half” leads the album into it’s bleak closer, “Like Suicide.”
Superunknown has been regarding a critical and commercial success, being widely well-received upon its release, selling over nine million albums worldwide. Lyrically, Soundgarden has always flirted with the dark side, and this record is no exception to that. However, despite it’s use of odd time signatures, dark lyrical themes and tendency for not-so-easy listening, the album skyrocketed into the mainstream. By the late 90’s/early 00’s, rock radio was full of acts highly influenced by Soundgarden and Superunknown in particular. From Days of the New’s use of alternate tuning to acts like Staind, Seether, Puddle of Mudd and so on and so forth, the influence of Soundgarden is too obvious at times.
Soundgarden released the slightly less-successful Down On the Upside in 1996 before calling it a day in 1997. Drummer Matt Cameron went on to play with Pearl Jam, where he is a current full-time member, and Chris Cornell went on to release three solo albums and front the supergroup Audioslave from 2002-2007 with ex-members of Rage Against the Machine. High demand for a reunion was asserted by fans and promoters alike and by 2010, Soundgarden announced a reunion tour and performance at the year’s Lollapalooza Festival. They stated that rather than reuniting for money, they waited until the time was right. In 2012 they released King Animal, to positive reviews and reception.
This year, Soundgarden will embark on a 24-date U.S. tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Superunknown alongside Nine Inch Nails (also celebrating a milestone album) and Death Grips.
All in all, the influence of Superunknown is one of the most long-standing of it’s generation. Contemporary post-grunge and metal acts site the album as a key influence, and it’s singles are still heard all over mainstream radio to this day. As a rejuvenated Soundgarden soldiers on into a new decade and new era, Superunknown remains an archetype for what the band can achieve in the future.