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Godfathers of Grunge—The Story of Soundgarden

The ‘90s saw a shift of tides in a music industry where rock still ruled the world, with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991. What made this such a landmark record was its blatant disregard for any of the tried-and-tested formulas that spurned so many platinum-selling and now long-forgotten bands in the decade past. This led to gripes from embittered heavyweights at the time, who knew they had to be quick on their feet, or be forever lost at sea.

Repetitive combinations of the same power chords simply would not do the trick anymore. The angst-ridden teens of the 80s—who banged their heads with apoplectic fury to meaningless narcotic-driven diatribes on Satan and war—now found themselves craving emotional release in their music. This gave birth to the infamous “grunge” movement, the forerunners of which were bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam.

To a score of punk rock-influenced riffs that sounded infinitely more sinister on down-tuned guitars—vocalists shrieked and howled their way into fans’ hearts. This budding generation of musical heroes had effectively challenged their predecessors to either catch up or die trying.

In this article, we reflect on the illustrious career of Soundgarden, the band who took the throne of grunge royalty right alongside Nirvana, and carried on the baton following Kurt’s demise. With a vast discography spanning six albums, each bringing something unique to the table, it was arguably their ‘90s releases that produced the most unforgettable classics.

Soundgarden, circa 1989.
L to R: Jason Everman (bass), Chris Cornell (vocals/rhythm guitar), Matt Cameron (drums), and Kim Thayil (lead guitar)

Badmotorfinger (1992)

Their breakthrough into commercial success, Badmotorfinger lassoes the listener with its infectious energy, taking them on a journey through Hell like it’s the thrill of a lifetime. Thayil’s guitar work is raw, muddy, unabashed to get down and dirty. Chris Cornell’s vocals seethe with every grunt, growl, and wail. Matt Cameron is left helpless to do anything but play catch-up with his bandmates on the percussion.

Opening with a rather upbeat-sounding guitar lick on Rusty Cage, one cannot help but get instantly swept up by ‘90s nostalgia—that sweet delusion of life being so much happier in the past. Soon, the rest of the band breaks into a jam that implicitly beckons you to throw your worries to the wind and jive along. Chris sings of breaking away and setting off on a new path to freedom, heightening the adrenaline rush of this tune that wants to flee as fast as it possibly can.

Cornell singing ‘Rusty Cage’. It takes one album to go from playing in bars to football stadiums.

It is here that we are first introduced to Soundgarden’s penchant for breakdowns. These are like a test that rewards those attentive enough to spot that one delicious riff hidden deeper inside, instead of impatiently skipping on to the next song. Next up is Outshined, a song that slows down to bring out the vicious intensity residing in every rumbling bass line, stomping of the kick drums, and resounding crash of the cymbals. Now is when the power in Cornell’s voice, as well as his ability to express his innermost thoughts through the most subtle of lyrics, is truly put on display.

Far from the first song to be written about feeling helpless and lost in a pit of despair, it does, however, offer a different take on the emotion. Soundgarden opted to infuse it with blood-curdling riffs that bide their time before pouncing on our senses. The drums mimic every stomp of this beast’s feet, as it knows we are trapped by its allure that entices as much as it screams danger. Cornell’s voice masterfully fluctuates from peaking at astonishing highs, before swooping down to a more sombre low.

In a way, it reflects the unrelenting rollercoaster ride that is dealing with depression. One moment feels like the skies are clearing out and things will be all right, and the next, the void engulfs everything in sight again. This is aptly touched upon in the infamous line, “I’m lookin’ in the mirror, and things aren’t lookin’ so good/I’m lookin’ California, and feelin’ Minnesota,” as he so brilliantly describes having to put a brave face on before the world while crumbling apart on the inside.

From the music video for ‘Outshined’.

It is in the trembling of his vocal chords as he sustains these notes that flaunt not only his wide range but also the control he has over his vibrato. Finally, we have Jesus Christ Pose, a song as intimidating as its title suggests. The pounding of drums sets the tone for a tribal atmosphere, the wailing of guitar strings being bent like ferocious hyenas on the prowl. When the distortion kicks in, with every strike of the open ‘A’ string, a resounding grumble echoes through the air, as thunder rolls through the skies.

A sense of urgency kicks in as the finger moves a string lower, but the pitch gets elevated by an octave. Plectrum gripped firmly between his index finger and thumb, Thayil alternate-picks at blinding speeds. His hand now a blur of up-and-down movements, the string vibrates at rapid intensity to produce the effect of something being slid across the surface. This time, Chris refuses to back down from doing anything but take his vocal chords to the height of their ability. Howling into the air as loud and as long as his lungs will let him—he firmly plants his feet in the desert soil and shrieks the verses for the world to hear.

It’s interesting to observe the different colours of the sky in the Jesus Christ Pose music video.

The song gallops to a close with a breakdown like a clash between the rhythm and melodic elements. The drums and bass team up and chase the guitars. Cameron makes full use of every percussive instrument in his repertoire to trip them up. Every snare hit whizzing past Thayil’s lightning-fast riffing like a bullet, every slam of the pedal against the kick drums. Every wallop of the bass drum interspersed with cymbal crashes screams through the air like a missile going off. Thayil turns around and strikes one power chord that blasts them back with its white-hot fury. All the while, Chris suveys the pandemonium going on around him, like a Satanic overlord watching his plan unfold, summoning a growl from the pits of his throat in testament to his evil.

Thus, it was due to the presence of masterpieces like these on the album that catapulted Soundgarden into mainstream infamy. Soon, the world couldn’t have enough of them. It seems like this would be the perfect time to finish their story with a happy ending. However, they were far from done with wreaking havoc on the music industry.

The cover of Badmotorfinger.

Superunknown (1994)

It was with the release of Superuknown that Soundgarden moved towards the brand of music for which they are most widely known and adulated. This was a transition phase in many ways, most notably, the shedding of their metal influences for a more hard rock sound. Chris also started to take up rhythm guitar duties in addition to vocals. These poster boys for rebellion even churned out one of the most timeless ballads ever released.

In the music video for the poetically-christened Fell On Black Days, the camera closes in on Chris’s eyes. If one stares earnestly enough, they can peer through them, into the fragments of his soul that shattered from this outpouring of emotion. A slam on the snare permeates the deafening silence. Rhythm starts to flow, muted strings click to the tapping of cymbals, as a power chord is bent downwards to make the guitar groan.

Chris carries the song skywards with his voice, gentle as a feather drifting with the wind. Feeble as it may be in tone, yet the undertones of misery scream to be heard in every verse. This is a ballad about the pieces of this puzzle we call life, scrambling themselves apart, just when everything seemed to be coming together. In his own words, “Just when every day seemed to greet me with a smile, sunspots have faded and now I’m doing time.”

From the Fell On Black Days music video.

A Middle Eastern-sounding bridge led by the guitar lifts the spirits, stirring visions of merry-making in the mind’s eye as Chris hums his heart out in the backdrop. This hurricane in the waters of the soul erupts into a furious storm one last time, as he screams, “How would I know? That this could be my, fate,” the intensity only building up with every chant until everything suddenly comes screeching to a halt.

Next, we have Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden’s own Smells Like Teen Spirit, the song they became most widely known for. Unlike Nirvana, however, Soundgarden were proud of their work. Until his demise twenty five years later, Chris never missed a single note when it came to this song. An arpeggio gets picked out, distortion giving every note a muffled echo.

The tone of Chris’s voice blends with the guitars, as one escalates and lulls in its pitch in sync with the other. This sun he sings of, seems to symbolise a burst of light that can extinguish the darkness residing within. Thayil solos maniacally over a breakdown in the middle, foot planted firmly on the “wah” pedal, morphing the notes in a move reminiscent of Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.

Chris and Thayil in the music video for Black Hole Sun

The Day I Tried To Live, makes one think of a time spent consciously following the world’s advice. He took in a breath of the morning air, listened to birds chirp and watched butterflies flutter, then set off to seek out these hidden joys of life. The song begins with a guitar moaning, like a child whining about having to wake up for school. It is soon accompanied by another guitar recreating that same melody, but in a more placid tone, assuring it that everything will turn out all right.

The bass line appears skeptical of this, adding a hint of tension in the air, joined by the drums in agreement. Chris uses the most peculiar of metaphors, such as stealing change from beggars to give to the rich, to express how everything unravelled before him. His voice shifts moods, from a dull calm as he waits to see how this will pan out, to impassioned screams as he repeats the first line, “I woke the same, as any other day…” but now shouts at the top of his lungs, “But I should have stayed in bed!”

A brilliant line from ‘The Day I Tried To Live’.

The muddy, heavy tone of the guitars in 4th of July recreate a burst of lightning, as the hairs on your neck stand on end from the crackling energy they emanate. As if about to tell a tragic tale, Chris begins to sing in a foreboding, hushed voice. Thayil’s guitar effects in the background, combined with the intermittent splashing of cymbals sound like the bells of war being rung. Now slipping into the character of witnesses giving their accounts of the carnage that took place, he sings the chorus in a state of shock, disbelief, and agony inflicted by intense trauma.

“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”, they say, describing what seems to be the explosion of an atomic bomb.  This was, perhaps, Soundgarden’s way of stirring some empathy into the souls of those who preach for war as the appropriate course of action to solve their nation’s problems. Sadly, if songs really could change the way people thought, this world would have been a much better place.

Cover of Superunknown

Down on the Upside (1996)

Having reached their peak following the release of Superunknown, Soundgarden now found themselves headlining festivals alongside behemoths like Metallica. Nirvana had effectively ended with Kurt’s suicide, and they now had the spotlight completely to themselves. Reporters from MTV were scrambling for their attention, despite the band not wanting anything to do with them. Such a meteoric rise to fame can take its toll on the young mind, which was precisely what happened when Soundgarden went into the studio for their next, and final venture for another two decades.

Opening the album with a slide guitar intro on Pretty Noose that could have fit perfectly on a country album was certainly a shot in the dark. They must have been all too aware that an impatient fan roped in by their metal era would only be too quick to dismiss something of the sort. That, however, wasn’t their target audience anymore. With a more accessible, softer rock sound, they were clearly aiming for a more mainstream appeal.

Chris singing ‘Pretty Noose’.

Chris first fades in with natural harmonics on his guitar that lure the listener into believing this song is going in a mellower direction. Just then, the overdrive kicks in and the entire band closes in for the kill. As they belt out a slow but commanding jam session, Chris tries out an intriguing bit of screaming in increasingly lower pitches, his voice echoing at the end of every verse to make sure we hear him loud and clear. One cannot help but notice the similarity between Chris’s raspy screams here, and that of future godfather to his children, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington.

With a title like Blow Up The Outside World, one listens to this song with baited breath, waiting for the explosive burst of music that would blow them away. What we are met with, instead, is Chris’s scarcely distinguishable voice through the telephone, sounding absolutely defeated and devoid of willpower. Unlike previous ballads, the tempo never picks up.

Throughout nearly the entire length of the song, the reverberating twang of a guitar fills the emptiness of the air around Chris’s hollow voice. Reverb is normally used in reggae music, to conjure images of relaxing by a beachside shack. Sometimes, it is used in clubs to induce an aura of tranquility. Here, it feels like standing lifelessly with your feet firmly planted into the ground, as you sink into quicksand.

From the music video for ‘Blow Up The Outside World’.

In the music video, Chris sits on a chair as a helmet feeds all the information he needs to know about life as an average American. What’s supposed to make him happy, what upsets him, who his enemies and friends are. It appears to be a way of saying that sometimes, the world makes us feel like we are robots, merely trained to do someone else’s bidding.

Burden In My Hand gives off distinct Led Zeppelin influences, so much so that had the vocalist been absent, it would have fit right into Led Zeppelin III. A vibrant sensation permeates the air, as Chris strums merrily away at his acoustic guitar while singing at the top of his lungs. It is an under-appreciated art to be able to not only coordinate complex strumming patterns and chord changes—but also sing the vocal melodies in precisely the right key.

Towards the chorus, any resemblances to classic rock are thrown to the wind. Cameron slams his cymbals with every ounce of strength in his being like waves crashing against the shoreline. Thayil retorts with a potent power chord attack of his own, as a ship sways eerily on its sides while being rocked by the brute force of Soundgarden’s music.

Cover of Down On The Upside. Notice how everyone is going their own separate ways.

There is a distinctive sentiment of emptiness that goes through one’s heart while watching videos of the band from this era. It was ultimately their egos that did them in, go on a hiatus as they did due to irreconcilable differences. A decade and a half later, they did make a return to blow up the outside world once again. However, that all came to a tragic end when, on 18th May, 2017, Chris Cornell committed suicide.

It’s safe to say that his voice was the essence of everything that was so compelling about Soundgarden’s music, and the band will never be the same without him. He was a kind soul who touched the lives of millions through his music. He knows better than anyone else just how many times his voice picked us up when we fell on black days. This article is a tribute to his memory, and we can only hope that he is in a better place.