Monday, March 3, 2008
Soundgarden's Superunknown will forever be regarded as one of the greatest and most ground breaking grunge/alternative releases created. Soundgarden are among the originators of the Seattle based grunge sound in the mid 80's and took the genre to new heights with each effort. They were the first grunge band to ever be signed to a major record label, leading the way for the scene to make its push into the mainstream. In 1994 with their fourth album, Soundgarden pushed the envelope of their sound to a new level, while raising the bar for their competition considerably high. A damn near perfect album from start to finish, they once again showed the very essence of grunge through bleak, brooding, and despair soaked songs.
The album begins with a bang created by the opener, "Let Me Drown". As the title will suggest, this is a not a happy song, but that doesn't stop it from still containing a brilliant beauty. Lead guitarist Kim Thayil takes little time to show off his Black Sabbath meets Led Zeppelin chops. The sound created is such a pure blending of their influences, and is only more powerful with the addition of Chris Cornell's unbelievable pipes. His lyrics are mellow and filled with anguish as he begs to drown. The rhythm section pulsates and a quiet piano is mixed within to add great texture. While only the first track on the album, this is one of my favorites, and a great way to kick off the CD. "My Wave" continues in the glory, as one of five major radio hits from the album. With an almost Eastern sounding melody mixed with some psychedelic guitar effects, this song contains a strong heavy groove. Lyrically, Cornell sings of his disdain for popular culture and being labeled a youth subculture. The ever alienated "Fell on Black Days" follows, in all its beauty and bleakness. Filled with as much gloom a song can possess, this song creates a mood like being stuck under a thousand pounds of mud and meagerly attempting to crawl your way out. As beautiful as it is dark, this is a true classic, by any standards. Cornell's lyrics are heavy as bricks, without being hard or shouted. His mellow drone leads way to his soaring hopefulness. When this album was released, I was in elementary school, and the black and white music video for this track of the band performing in some seedy basement never did it for me. As I have grown older, I think the video is an amazing accompaniment, as it fits the song perfectly.
"Mailman" comes next, and starts with a slow doom like metal dirge of guitars. Cornell shows exactly why he is one of the best singers of the 90s with his vocals tones switching from low to high seamlessly within just words of each other. A very grunge heavy track, with a dark winding hook, and a thick trance like flow. The title track, "Superunknown," is an extreme psychedelic trip through the far depths of space. Thayil shows his guitar wizardry with wide exploding guitar licks to complement Cornell's wailing delivery. The subsonic bass sound and hard hitting drums are Led Zeppelin like in their quality as the song travels deeper into the acid induced visions, and Thayil lets loose with his solo. The lyrics are great as they contain the mysterious dangers of living in the "Superunknown". If "My Wave" showed Eastern philosophies being introduced, "Head Down" brings them to the forefront. This song comes across like a journey floating through the ocean, with its psychedelic wanderings creating a peaceful flow, combined with crashing waves of guitar sounds and more Bonham like drumming. This song uses multiple vocal overlaps creating a great texture and thickness to Cornell's sordid dreamy delivery.
The album than reaches the super mega smash hit, "Black Hole Sun". I don't believe there is any one who bothers reading this that doesn't already know and love this song. With the creeping intro rolling out like the fog, this songs vocal imagery is unmatched throughout time. Cornell's vocals sound fine tuned and incredible as he carries long melodies that scream with disenchantment, while offering up a certain degree of hope as well. This song came along with arguably the best music video of the 90's, that brought to life the imagery already storming throughout the track. With a dark black sky that looked ready to begin Armageddon, those creepy surreal faces, and the melting of all things evil and unnatural, the video is a real gem. The almost equally popular smash hit success of "Spoonman" follows, and doesn't allow the intensity of this album to let up in the least. The incredible time shifting drum and spoon-playing solo captures a mystic spiritual sound reminiscent of a snake charmer, before the song stirs right back into the heavy swirls of the chorus. The entire band is really on point, and takes time to venture throughout the spectrum of sounds they can create.
My two personal favorite tracks on the album, "Limo Wreck," and "The Day I Tried to Live," continue in pushing the bar higher and higher for this timeless album. They both have an apocalyptic sound that creeps along, side by side with the best riffs Sabbath ever wrote. "Limo Wreck," really is a downward visceral doom filled saga. Thayil plays an incredible weaving guitar line, as Cornell delivers his passionate wails filled with intensity. Then comes the greatest track I personally thing Soundgarden ever wrote, and one of my favorite songs ever written. "The Day I Tried to Live" begins with an incredible deep space soar of guitar melody. The bouncing bass line stomps in with the drums, and Cornell steals away the attention with his beautiful uplifting vocals. If a song could be considered perfect, this is it. This song ages like a fine wine, and remains just as powerful and sincere as ever. Cornell really shows his penchant for songwriting in this progressive leaning epic song.
"Kickstand," is a fast and furious rocker, coming in at only a minute and a half in length. Many consider this track to be album filler, but its the contrast created on the album, that makes this song so important. Coming after "The Day I Tried to Live," it picks the pace back up and adds yet another style variety. "Fresh Tendrils" comes next and continues in the despair and gloom of the album. The musical structuring of this song is almost progressive, and with out a doubt intelligent. The band sounds so cohesive as a unit, it's hard to believe they would only release one more album. Next up is the slow doom grunge of "4th of July." One of the most underrated songs on the album, Cornell's vocals are beautiful even as they come across as being overly detached. Doubling his duties with two vocal lines simultaneously, both a low drone and his soaring wail, he sings the incredible hook, "I heard it in the wind, I saw it in the sky, and I thought it was the end, I thought it was the 4th of July." Thayil takes the end of the world feel to new heights with his solo during the bridge, and overall dirt and sludge of this track. The contrast of the beauty in the vocal melody with the crushing gloom of the music make this one of the best tracks in the set.
"Half" follows with what is far and away the strangest track they have released. Vocal duties come from bassist Ben Sheppard singing in a high pitched distorted sound. The key switches from major to minor, creating a cool texture that is heavily India flavored. Not the best track in the world, but creates further flow to the album as a whole. "Like Suicide," rounds out the classic offering, with some of the deepest and most powerful lyrics of the album. A tale of a couples experience with suicide and death, this song has a slower pace, that is softer than most of the rest of the album, but just as sonically heavy. The drumming by Matt Cameron is crisp and on point, and sounds great with the blistering guitar solo Thayil unleashes. Thayil starts the album with the hard rocking licks of the very first track, and does not let up the amazing pressure and intensity of his playing until the very last note of the album.
It is a shame that Soundgarden are not still with us, creating new music. The directions they were heading in were incredibly original and ultimately profoundly interesting. Luckily for us though, we will always have this album to play as often as desired. No matter how many times I've enjoyed this classic crowning achievement of the grunge era, it still manages to get better with every listen. Please do me, and yourself a favor, and listen to this record. If you haven't heard it in a while or if you just listened to it yesterday, throw it on again and enjoy the masterpiece that is Superunknown.
Posted by Dan Goldin at 6:51 PM