The Nine Circles Ov… Soundgarden

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You might find it strange to see a Soundgarden article on this website. But why is that? For many older metal fans, the term “Grunge” still holds a powerful emotional weight as the music that opened the gates for the benign, solo-less drivel of late-90s post-grunge and nu-metal. But this perception is actually deeply mistaken and unfair, as all the major Seattle bands (even Mudhoney) employed guitar solos and incorporated major metal influences into their sound. Soundgarden also seems like a puzzling choice for an extreme music site, especially for those casual listeners who are only familiar with their more widely-known works (e.g. “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Burden in My Hand”). And while there’s plenty to explore in Soundgarden’s more rock-oriented output, there’s a glorious, explosive quality to their heaviest songs that deserves greater attention. Though they’re known, along with Alice in Chains, as the more “metal-oriented” bands from the grunge movement, they’re even heavier than most metal fans give them credit for (or even themselves, Kim Thayil still bridles at the band being called “metal”).

I’m sure most of you at least know “Outshined,”  “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose.” Maybe you even know “Loud Love” and a few other heavy tracks. But Soundgarden’s catalog contains a wealth of lesser-known gems; from their early days on Sub-Pup, to the challenging expanse of the later records. There are also some tracks from the various collections and deluxe editions that demand a listen. We need to change these perceptions and fill in that missing knowledge — and I’m here to help! So check out the 9 songs below, go beyond the wheel and scream for life in the superunknown!

“Nothing to Say” (from Screaming Life, 1987)

Soundgarden’s debut release was rumoured to be one of Kurt Cobain’s favorite records when it came out (the Nirvana singer later denied the fact… God knows why). And it’s easy to see why. Even at such an early stage, songs like “Nothing to Say” show Chris Cornell at his full prowess as a vocalist. While power metal-style high-pitch vocals often come off as cheesy and silly, Cornell’s sound almost life-affirming in their extremity. The main riff is pretty nasty too, and is given an even more dirty (or dare I say, grungy) atmosphere by the crude production (Note: I thought to include “Heretic” here from the Deep Six compilation, but that version isn’t on Spotify!)

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“Mood for Trouble” (from Ultramega OK, 1988)

Soundgarden was always a very dynamic band, capable of incorporating different styles and influences into a recognizable sound. The use of both acoustic and electric guitar sounds on “Mood for Trouble” sets it apart from many of their more well-known songs. The song has a very contemplative air to it, which matches up perfectly with its lyrical themes: “Admit it, You believed, Your perfect pool of lies.”

“Slaves and Bulldozers” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)

But never mind all that, let’s just blow everything up! Badmotorfinger is easily my favorite Soundgarden album, and is perhaps my favorite album of all time… of any genre. From its amazingly heavy guitar riffs, to Cornell’s unbelievable vocals, to the almost perfectly bitter lyrics, there’s never been an album I’ve related to more. And “Slaves and Bulldozers” (what a name!) is a perfect example. That guitar tone is devastatingly heavy and I never tire of those simple yet ominous riffs, and Cornell’s delivery of the “Beat your heart out” is just stunning (cool play on words too). The sound of buildings collapsing.

“Holy Water” (from Badmotorfinger, 1991)

THAT RIFF!!! “Holy Water” is my favorite Soundgarden song. And the first few seconds should make the reason glaringly obvious. The main riff is so low, so heavy, and so instantly memorable, it’s one of those riff you hear and immediately go “oh my God, this is AWESOME!” The creepy-sounding bridge is pretty cool too, with those eerie lines: “Damn the water if it’s life, You want to drink.”

“Mailman” (from Superunknown, 1994)

Superunknown is an album of many moods, colors and styles. It’s an interesting journey listening through over 70 minutes, a dazzling achievement for any band. Though I love more upbeat songs like the title track (Matt Cameron’s drumming is particularly exciting on that one), it’s the dirges like “Mailman” that hold the most emotional weight. The song’s refrain would seem overly simplistic and trite in the hands of lesser bands (“Cause I know I’m, headed for the bottom”), but Cornell’s melody, soaked with the doomy riffs from Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd, just speaks to so many experiences. I first fell in love with this song at 16 and it hasn’t lost any meaning for me since.

“4th of July” (from Superunknown, 1994)

Moving into even darker territory, “4th of July” could almost sit side-by-side with the best funeral doom acts out there. The apocalyptic lyrics deal with wider themes of mourning, destruction and the end-times, but are written in such a way that they could be applied to almost anything. It’s as if Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones” found its musical equivalent. Pay particular attention to the second verse when Cornell’s dual vocal tracks kick in: one in the lower octave, one in the higher. High drama sinking to its very best.

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“Never the Machine Forever” (from Down on the Upside, 1996)

You get the feeling on Down on the Upside that Soundgarden was looking to repeat the artistic accomplishments of the previous record, but never quite got there. There’s a distinct sense of “maturity” flowing through this record, in contrast to the hydrogen-bomb blast of Badmotorfinger, the bravado of Louder than Love, or the kaleidoscope of Superunknown. You feel as if the band knew this was going to be the last album (at least at the time). Still, songs like this one stand out as having some of the raw power of the early days. That bass line at the start is almost a throwback to 80s hardcore (think “Filler” by Minor Threat).

“Beyond the Wheel – Live at Exhibition Stadium, Toronto/1993” (from Superunknown Super Deluxe Edition, 2014)

I originally thought to include the studio version of “Beyond the Wheel,” but this live version from 1993 blows away even that version. I remember being in high school during the Audioslave days and having people remark on Cornell’s vocals then. Never mind all of that. If you want to hear Cornell in all his glorious, absurdly dramatic power, listen no further.

“Cold Bitch” (from Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path, 2015)

A rarity from the Badmotorfinger-era. Once again, the song shows the band at its best: excellent vocals from Cornell, heavy yet unorthodox riffs from Thayil, a picture-perfect rhythm section, and brilliantly simple lyrics (“But in your heart, I’d freeze”…damn!). It’s for this reason I opted to put this here in place of anything from Louder than Love (though if you’re curious, I think “Power Trip” is a cool, creepy track on an otherwise uneven transitional album).

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The Nine Circles ov Soundgarden on Spotify:

– J. Andrew Z

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