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Soundgarden and the Days of Grunge-Gone-By

By Anand Varghese | October 30, 2006

Chris CornellIt’s hard to tell what common trait placed the disparate sounds of early ’90s Seattle bands under the term “grunge”. As united as this vanguard of authentic rock ‘n’ roll resurgence appeared, the ‘Big Four’ Seattle bands seemed to be fighting their battles on different fronts. Listening to albums from the age, there is little linking Pearl Jam’s classic rock vibes, Nirvana’s post-Punk sonic anarchy and the eerie harmonised aggression of Alice in Chains. Except plaid shirts, of course. Perhaps it was a convenient industry spin, or perhaps it was what these bands were not. They were not hair-teased icons of rock excess. They did not make power ballads which oozed pathos and cheese in equal measure. They were the breath of fresh air that rock needed, lest it die a noisome death at the hands of the kitschy synth-rock mainstream. And in my opinion, nothing from that decade was as fresh and exciting as Soundgarden.

I came to the grunge thing a little late in life. By the time I chomped my way through the Beatles and various other classic rock heavyweights, I found myself slowly discovering grunge, albeit a good 15 years after the crest of the wave. But I come from a generation stuck in the middle: when ‘Nevermind’ was released, we were too young to have much to be rebellious about, and when we were old enough, we got N’Sync. Hard times, I tell you, hard times.

They were the breath of fresh air that rock needed, lest it die a noisome death at the hands of the kitschy synth-rock mainstream. And in my opinion, nothing from that decade was as fresh and exciting as Soundgarden.

But my post-adolescent entry to the world of the alternate was heralded with the epic fanfare that is ‘Superunknown’. In the spectrum of “alternative” sounds, Soundgarden was probably the closest to heavy metal, and ‘Superunknown’ definitely ran in a heavier vein than what I was used to. But a few listens in, I was hopelessly hooked.

What really caught my ear was Sardar-looking, Mallu-bred, Chicago-born guitarist Kim Thayil with his thick tone and angular, often dissonant approach that gave Soundgarden its signature sound. But their most obvious calling card was vocalist Chris Cornell. His range and virtuosity drew comparisons to early Robert Plant, and indeed Soundgarden embraced much of the restless experimental spirit of Zeppelin. Drummer Matt Cameron’s melodic style created a perfect foil for bassist Ben Shepherd, and a near prog-rock edge to Soundgarden’s rhythms.

Soundgarden’s lyrical approach also placed them in a different, and arguably superior, category. Their peers took the ability to focus on personal emotions, faults, angst and self-loathing to a depressing, even narcissistic pitch. But more than angst, Soundgarden’s lyrics delved into matters with heavy doses of irony, at times slipping into the sardonic. They showed a side that the rest seemed to be reluctant to reveal: a sense of humour.

But perhaps there’s no other way to look at the fate of grunge’s poster boys than with a sense of humour. AIC has replaced Staley, Dave Grohl’s gone Foo, and in a recent issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly, I saw Eddie Vedder posing in a photo spread, with a surf board and winning smile to boot. (DON’T ask me why I was flipping through GQ.) Chris Cornell, on the other hand, can now be seen strutting down red carpets dressed in a sharp Armani suit with a pretty wife in tow. On stage with the boys from Audioslave, he even attempts Rage-style rap or two. Yes, the times, they are a-changing. Perhaps it’s his own prophesy fulfilled:

“Whatsoever I’ve feared has / Come to life / Whatsoever I’ve fought off / Became my life.”

Indeed, the irony has come full circle.

Comments

10 Comments. Post Yours Here.
  1. October 30, 2006, 1:09 pm D

    Ah N’Sync. Those were the days.

  2. October 30, 2006, 6:17 pm Ashwin

    “when ‘Nevermind’ was released, we were too young to have much to be rebellious about, and when we were old enough, we got N’Sync. Hard times, I tell you, hard times.”

    Tell me about it!

  3. October 31, 2006, 3:00 am Dean

    As unfortunate as it was that Nirvana came to an end, I’m having a hard time finding the humor behind Dave Grohl’s formation of the Foo Fighters. In my opinion, the Foo Fighters are one of the best bands ever, as millions upon millions of fans would agree. I love all of the bands mentioned in this article; and in the history of rock music, the Foo Fighters will stand right up there with ‘em.

    Other than that, I enjoyed your write up. Great quote at the end. :)

  4. October 31, 2006, 9:59 am Anand

    @ D, Ashwin – yes, I’m glad there is someone who feels my pain :)

    @Dean – Oh yeah..I like the Foo Fighters a lot too…(and admitedly, among my list of neo-grunge phenomena, they are the LEAST humuorous item and deserve the MOST respect). But it’s a bit amusing to me how much they have ‘slickened’ compared to Nirvana, in the same way that Audioslave (another excellent band) has slickened in comparison to Rage and Soundgarden…and not to say that slickness is a bad thing..far from it. It;s the irony of the metamorphosis that struck me as being somewhat humurous …but thanks for the comments, and I fully agree with u on Foo!

  5. October 31, 2006, 8:08 pm Deepak Nair

    Grunge as we knew is dead …..its not the musicians but the Record Companies who hav killed them…they milked Grunge till its last drop.

  6. November 1, 2006, 1:09 am Dean

    @Anand – Thanks for clarifying. :) I need to listen to a full Audioslave album; I really haven’t been impressed with their radio songs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t enjoy the rest of their material. I don’t know what it is exactly – maybe it’s Cornell’s vocals. They sound so strained. I realize Cornell sounds pretty much the same now as they did back in the Soundgarden days, so maybe it’s just more of the fact that I don’t think Audioslave’s music matches up with Cornell. Or maybe I just can’t get over the fact that Rage isn’t together anymore. (jk)

    /rant :D

  7. November 5, 2006, 3:50 pm Bhanuj

    Good article my friend. Although the sense of irony and sarcasm was not singular to Soundgarden. Dark humor abounded in both Nirvana and AIC’s music too, for example the mocking nature of In-Bloom. Not to mention their live acts. And then of course, there’s Mudhoney.

    As for Audioslave, they are a good band but it’s a case of what could have been but wasn’t. When you put one of the most powerful vocalists of the last 2 decades with one of the most innovative and original bands of the last decade, you expect something more. Audioslave seems more like a damp squib.

  8. May 15, 2007, 7:01 pm Abhishek

    I agree with Bhanuj. In fact, most Soundgarden lyrics help build and sustain the i-hate-the-world -so-much-i-want-to-kick-it kind of emotional angst. If you found something darkly humorous about ‘fell on black days’, you should probably listen to ‘burden in my hand’ until you can feel the lines
    secondly, you might experience a different magic if you were to delve deeper into their past. listen to some of their classics, like ‘loud love’ or ‘get on the snake’. those songs are uplifting, and not so depressing

  9. June 22, 2007, 8:41 pm emily

    nysnc sucked balls and one is gay. backstreet boys were way better and every one should admitt it. anyways i think soundgarden was awesome.. yea. but To me. Pearl jam was the defining band of the 4. Totally rocked

  10. September 27, 2009, 1:40 pm basuki dutta

    hi

    Grunge rock was the best thing that happened in the 90s.Though it originated in america
    in no time it was caught all over the world.But sadly grunge revolution came to end in 1994
    with tragic death of grunge icon kurt cobain.Soon other bands like alice in chains and soundgarden parted ways ending grunge rock era.

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