photo & text by nacrowe
it is difficult to overstate the importance of SOUNDGARDEN's fourth studio album SUPERUNKNOWN (A&M, 1994) in my young life as a music listener. unapologetically, i am most definitely a 90s kid and as such, as ive repeated on this blog before, was gifted both SUPERUNKOWN and PEARL JAM's VITALOGY (review linked HERE) in what had to have been christmas 1994. i should also mentioned shortly after such my first record purchase was a compact disc copy of LIVING COLOUR's VIVID (review linked HERE). so not a bad first foray indeed. that being said i am emotionally tied to this album so this review will not be some pseudo-critical appraisal of its worth. to me the experience of listening to this era of SOUNDGARDEN is akin to reliving my childhood. so that is my bias.
compared to its predecessor, the similarly stellar BADMOTORFINGER (A&M, 1991), SUPERUNKOWN is more psychedelic and sonically expansive, incorporating nontraditional instrumentation (i.e. spoon percussion on "SPOONMAN") and their requisite odd time signatures that still manage to be highly contagious and earworm-y. standout tracks include "4TH OF JULY," "FRESH TENDRILS," "HEAD DOWN," "FELL ON BLACK DAYS," "LIKE SUICIDE," "MY WAVE," "SUPERUNKNOWN," "LET ME DROWN," "SPOONMAN," "THE DAY I TRIED TO LIVE" and of course the generational ALTERNATIVE ROCK anthem that is "BLACK HOLE SUN." okay, i realize that i just named most the tracks on the album, but that is kind of the point here. its a landmark album with many of the best tracks of their career, hands down.
growing up my personal favorite track was the title track, "SUPERUNKNOWN," which slowly builds from a mixolydian sounding eastern single note riff that expands and and enlarges until the choruses and guitar solos engulf the universe. guitarist KIM THAYIL is an absolute wizard and is criminally underrated amongst his ALTERNATIVE ROCK peers. the dude is an utterly unique and has a preternaturally deft ear for both crushing riffs and dynamic texture shifts. that said, "SUPERUNKNOWN" itself is an absolutely epic track sonically that lyrically is about SELF-TRANSFORMATION and stepping into the unknown despite your personal MISGIVINGS, INSECURITIES and TREPIDATIONS. that song alone has been the soundtrack to all my "fuck lets go decisions" over the years from joining PEACE CORPS in ALBANIA to any number of teaching jobs i took in quasi-safe locales ranging from VENEZUELA to MYANMAR.
the brutally guttural guitar tone of "4TH OF JULY" has been immensely influential on the EXTREME METAL genre of DRONE METAL, particularly key bands like BORIS, JESU and especially SUNN O))). that deep low-tuned guitar absolutely crushes and propels the listener on a slow plodding sonic dirge not experienced before, even by the likes of SLUDGE METAL bands like MELVINS or NEUROSIS. lyrically the song is uses natural imagery to thematically espouse on concepts related to MORAL REBIRTH and PERSONAL REJUVENATION in the wake of some undefined debasing experience. such a revelation is personally experienced by the narrator through a massive thunderclap and natural visual display that borders on the sublime. i always interpreted the song as that moment when a transformative idea comes to conscious fruition from whatever subterranean depths and unknown processes it came out of.
i could go down the line here song by song but i wont. suffice to say that SUPERUNKNOWN is required listening and is the ultimate showcase of the almost ALCHEMICAL ARTISTIC SYNERGY of these four talented musicians: all of whom are songwriters. CHRIS CORNELL with his voice and songwriting abilities are a revelation unto itself, making him easily the standard bearer amongst his ALTERNATIVE ROCK peers. what a generational talent he was. BEN SHEPHERD likewise contributed one of my favorite tracks ("HEAD DOWN") and his ability for composing interesting arrangements and odd textural juxtapositions is the secret weaon of the band. KIM THAYIL like i said before is a wizard and experimental riff meister of the first order (right there in my mind with DIMEBAG DARRELL of PANTERA). and MATT CAMERON and his adroit and tasteful percussion choices throughout laid the groundwork for one of the most experimental and artistically successful ROCK AND ROLL albums ever.
but then again i am incredibly biased.
REST IN PEACE CHRIS CORNELL.
photo & text by nacrowe
i remember this album being referred to as UP ON THE SUCKSIDE by a middle school friend of mine in NIGERIA upon its release in the mid-1990s. i never thought that was a fair assessment.
i think SOUNDGARDEN's DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (A&M, 1996) suffered in comparison to the iconic ALTERNATIVE ROCK band's previous SUPERUNKNOWN (A&M, 1994) and BADMOTORFINGER (A&M, 1991) records, which were stellar examples of tuneful songwriting and massive-sounding music production that resulted in a sound that effectively split the difference between BLACK SABBATH and THE BEATLES. to my ears this album was more musically experimental sonically and texturally with songs like "APPLEBITE," "SWITCH OPENS," "ZERO CHANCE," "TIGHTER & TIGHTER," and "BOOT CAMP" all playing with droning open chords and looping drum patterns that create a hypnotizing mantra of sorts not that dissimilar from traditional INDIAN music. i can see now such would be a bit off putting to a fan of those previous aforementioned records. of course there were singles such as "PRETTY NOOSE," "BLOW UP THE OUTSIDE WORLD" and "BURDEN IN MY HAND" that showcase the incredible vocals of CHRIS CORNELL and the idiosyncratic guitar heroics of KIM THAYIL in a more recognizable and traditional SOUNDGARDEN format that would makes sense on previous releases.
a standout track for me includes "TY COBB," which is such a spit-in-your-eye fury of aggression that never seized to get me revved up as it did as a teenager before a sporting event. in a sense its lyrics did give off the misanthropic and malcontent vibe of the actual TY COBB with its "hard-headed, fuck you all" refrain. a similar vibe is also apparent on "NO ATTENTION" and "AN UNKIND."
my memory of this record upon its release is clouded by the breakup of the band a few months later. i really remember being bummed about that since i felt that was a DOWN ON THE UPSIDE strong record that was more diverse and ultimately interesting than their previous output. seemed a waste. i was overjoyed when they returned many years later if only because it meant the return of the immensely inventive and criminally underrated and under-appreciated THAYIL, who was always a favorite of mine going back to childhood.
definitely check out DOWN ON THE UPSIDE, an under-appreciated album by a seminal rock band.