Soundgarden spearheaded the Northwest’s revival of that non-metal rock gulch between late-’60s innovation and late-’70s rebellion, years in which groups like Grand Funk, Led Zep and Mountain prevailed. Never as punk (or pop) as Nirvana or as out-and-out heavy as the Melvins, smarter than Alice in Chains but less serious than Pearl Jam, the Seattle quartet started out too early and, for a while, seemed doomed to chase grunge’s commercial juggernaut. In the ’90s, however, hard work and the mounting demand for thuggish guitar-rock power brought Soundgarden mainstream success, thereby eliminating any vestigial countercultural distinction between the group and the bands that originally inspired it. That was followed, of course, by the group’s prompt and polite dissolution and the inevitable solo launch for singer Chris Cornell.
Happily unspecific in its stylistic derivation, the accomplished six-song Screaming Life EP introduces Cornell’s Robert Plant-channeling vocals, Kim Thayil’s turgid guitar power, Hiro Yamamoto’s rubbery bass action and Matt Cameron’s steady-as-she-goes drumming. The assimilation of both classic rock riffs and punk noise keeps things interesting, but Cornell’s unabashed mimicry stands out as Soundgarden’s essential feature. The band’s two Sub Pop EPs were later joined on one ten-track CD. Screaming Life/Fopp contains the latter’s three ’88 live tracks — “Kingdom of Come,” a cover of Green River’s “Swallow My Pride” and the titular Ohio Players song — plus a pointless dub mix of “Fopp.”
Soundgarden then became Sub Pop’s first offering to the corporate ogre by signing with A&M in 1988. In what subsequently became a common major-label ploy to bolster new bands’ hipness cred before turning on the hype, Ultramega OK was released by SST. A noticeable improvement, with less self-conscious posturing and more evidence of an emerging personality, the album finds Cornell reducing (not eliminating) his reliance on Plant clichés. For all the energetic bluster, though, an inadequate comprehension of what constitutes a song (something Soundgarden’s forefathers always grasped) leaves the quartet tethered to the past, attempting to get by with touchstones rather than originality.
With its standard-issue Charles Peterson hair-photograph cover and Terry Date production, Louder Than Love is an inauspicious commercial unveiling, all muscle and no brains. The songs plod; Cornell roars with fringed-leather power; Thayil throws out licks haphazardly, whether they fit or not; the rhythm section does nothing more than keep the beat. Intentionally or otherwise, Soundgarden might as well be America’s Cult. “Uncovered,” built on a variation of the descending riff from “Dazed and Confused,” is the closest the record comes to finding and sticking with an idea that works; while the chords of “Big Dumb Sex” hold together, Cornell’s lyrics are unendurably stupid.
Yamamoto left; he was briefly replaced by ex-Nirvana guitarist Jason Everman, who was gone before the sessions for the next album began. Ben Shepherd, his successor, wasted no time in making his presence known on Badmotorfinger, writing or co-writing four songs and fattening up the band’s bottom with driving, shapely bass riffs that give both Thayil and Cornell a firmer foundation than they’ve ever had. (Not that either does anything especially new with it.) The speeding “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Holy Water” (“Holy Bible on the night stand/Next to me/As I’m raped by/Another monkey circus freak/Trying to take my/Indignance away from me” — indignance? monkey circus freak? What is Cornell on about?) find the singer growing into his messianic role, an apt verbal analogue for his growing rock stardom. Finally, it’s Soundgarden’s insistence on taking the simplest ideas and beating them into the ground with the repetitive concentration of bodybuilders that keeps the album (which went platinum in any case) from anything more involving than groundshaking sonic power. Sometimes an earthquake is just an earthquake.
The shocking development on Superunknown — besides the beneficial introduction of Michael Beinhorn as the band’s first new studio collaborator and the fact that it went straight in at the top of the charts — is “Black Hole Sun,” an honest-to-god psychedelic pop song, and a stunningly good one at that. (If Cornell could write something like this, why hadn’t he ever shown any evidence of it before? Maybe the short haircut had something to do with it.) In this great creative leap forward, other numbers — “The Day I Tried to Live,” “Head Down,” “Spoonman,” “Limo Wreck” — incorporate bridges, dynamic variation, bursts of melody and other useful bits of musical business. (“Half” goes way out on a sitar-and-tabla-like limb that could arguably be growing from Led Zeppelin’s world music adventures.) Fitted out with Cornell lyrics that thoughtfully describe what sounds like a deadly depression — witness “Let Me Drown,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Like Suicide” — the songs pack a wallop that is amplified by, rather than based in, the band’s forceful playing. (Alive in the Superunknown, a video-packed CD-ROM supplement to the album, contains its title track, a live version of “Fell on Black Days,” an acoustic “Like Suicide” and the previously unissued-in-the-US “She Likes Surprises.”)
There’s no “Black Hole Sun” on Down on the Upside, but the general inclination of the album is toward songs of that caliber and nonconformity. The predominance of classic riff-rock remains (this time, throwing elements of Bad Company, Free, Black Sabbath and Lynyrd Skynyrd into the Zeppitude), but simply wrought songs like “Tighter & Tighter,” “Never Named,” “Blow Up the Outside World” and the understated “Overfloater” expand the band’s reach enough to warrant suspicions of creative effort. While Cornell is still mucking about his usual animosity/suicide/rot rut, faint glimmers of page-turning imagination, like “Ty Cobb,” improve the lyrics.
Typical of too many moonlit releases from Northwest stars — so much studio time, so little inspiration — the eponymous album by Hater, a five-piece starring drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd (here playing guitar), is a silly waste of time. A sloppy studio bash that has to have been more fun to make than it is to hear, Hater has a Cat Stevens cover (“Mona Bone Jakon”), Stoogey punk (“Tot Finder”), T.Rex-by-way-of-the-Beatles rock (“Putrid”) and cowpunk (“Blistered”). With exactly one solid original, Shepherd’s “Circles,” Hater is trivial and self-indulgent, unreleasable were it not for the stature of the participants.