Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Burden in My Hand”

Who Are They?

One of the “Big Four” grunge acts of the early ‘90s. (Has anyone coined the term “Big Four Grunge Acts?" If not, I’m claiming it. Intellectual property!)

Think all the way back to 1991. The terrible fad of ‘80s glam metal had been crushed by an army of angsty, disheveled kids from Seattle. Flannel and unwashed hair replaced spandex and the noxious fumes of too much hairspray. Leading the movement were the Big Four Grunge Acts©: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.

This epic tale usually describes grunge just kind of appearing out of thin air, citing Nirvana as the band that started it all. You know how it goes: “Then ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came out and everything just changed, man.” Actually, man, Soundgarden had already formed long before Kurt Cobain even thought of the name Nirvana.

Chris Cornell and the former bassist of Hiro Yamamoto formed a little band called The Shemps in the early ‘80s, which later evolved into Soundgarden. The original lineup featured Chris on drums and vocals, Hiro on bass, and Kim Thayil on guitar. Scott Sundquist rescued Chris from the difficulty of pulling double duty, but bowed out after playing a few gigs. Matt Cameron (formerly of Skin Yard) replaced him, and that’s when people first started to take notice.

Soundgarden signed to Sub Pop in 1987, released a couple of E.P.s, switched to SST Records for their debut album Ultramega OK (which earned them a Grammy nod for Best Metal Performance), then made the biggest underground band faux pas by signing to major label A&M Records. They were basically excommunicated from the Seattle scene, and even Hiro Yamamoto ditched them. One album and two bassists later, Soundgarden settled into an established lineup (now with Ben Shepherd on bass) and stormed into the ‘90s with 1991’s Badmotorfinger.

Although Badmotorfinger was overshadowed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, Chris and the boys found mainstream success a few years later with 1994’s Superunknown. Their most popular single “Black Hole Sun” helped the album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned the band an MTV Video Music Award, plus two Grammys.

The slightly less heavy Down on the Upside didn’t see as much success as Superunknown, and Soundgarden officially decided to call it quits in 1997.

Where Are They Now?

Back together and gaining momentum.

After the breakup, the foursome went their separate ways. Chris released a solo album in 1999 (as most front men like to do when their original bands dissolve). In 2001, he teamed up with then-former members of Rage Against the Machine Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk to form the delightful supergroup Audioslave (yours truly saw them live twice!). Audioslave released three albums until they disbanded in 2007. Chris released two more solo albums, his most recent being the Timbaland-produced Scream.

Kim joined forces with punk royalty Jello Biafra (formerly of Dead Kennedys), former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Gina Mainwal for one show as The No W.T.O. Combo in 1999. He later contributed to projects by Steve Fisk, Dave Grohl, and the band Sunn O))).

Matt worked briefly with Smashing Pumpkins on their album Adore, then became Pearl Jam’s permanent drummer in 1998, recording four albums with them.

Ben turned his attention back to his side project Hater, originally started in 1993 when he was still with Soundgarden.

On January 1, 2010, Chris alluded to a Soundgarden reunion on his Twitter, writing, “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” Only Chris Cornell can make a medieval reference and not sound like a geek.

The band played their first show since 1997 at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle on April 16, and after months of rumors, it was announced that they would appear at Lollapalooza in August. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the Lolla performance was AMAZING.

But Why Soundgarden?

“Black Rain,” a previously unreleased track and the band’s first single since 1997, was included on the compilation album Telephantasm: A Retrospective. Their first live album, Live on I5, will be released on March 22 (same day as Green Day’s live album, strangely. There’s a random plug for you). Oh, and there’s new material floating around, just in time for their first album in 15 years. But no big deal.

(Random thought: Does this video remind anyone else of Dethklok?)

What Does Sam Think?

First things first: Soundgarden really shouldn’t be considered a grunge band. Technically, the only real grunge band out of the Big Four was Nirvana. Soundgarden is more of a metal band, but not in the typical sense. There are grunge undertones, but the sound isn’t totally embraced. It’s…quasi-metal. Yeah, I just made up a genre. Sue me.

Genre speculation aside, this band’s talent needs to be recognized. Don’t compare them to Pearl Jam or Nirvana (I broke that rule, but that was for introductory purposes). Soundgarden sounds like nothing else. Listen to Superunknown in its entirety, and maybe skip over “Black Hole Sun” because we’ve all heard it so many times (that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song, though). One of the best Soundgarden songs is “4th of July,” simply because it’s dark, brooding, and just sounds like it comes from the depths of Hell.

But honestly, the best album has to be Badmotorfinger. It’s pure, feral, filthy music made of liquid gold and primal screams. I’m just gonna come out and say it: Chris Cornell has the voice of an angel. Seriously. Nuns cry when he opens his mouth. Put on “Jesus Christ Pose” and try to stop the hairs on the back of your neck from standing up.

Okay, I’m done gushing.

Anyway, words can’t express how excited I am about new Soundgarden material. The guys are taking it slow, which is actually a great idea. Chris told Spin that they’re “putting the music first.” In his own words: “We don’t have a schedule…The process of writing, recording, and being creative together is the most important thing, not meeting a deadline.” Aw, band love. Why can’t all bands do that? Actually, I take that back. I’m a pretty impatient fan. But I’ll wait just for Soundgarden.

Now enjoy some faces that will haunt your dreams.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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