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Grunge icons, or a metal band in denial? - 90%

hells_unicorn, June 5th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1989, CD, A&M Records

Contrary to what the music media would have people believe nowadays, most of the early efforts of the so-called grunge scene were generally lumped in with the still dominant metal/rock scene of the day, and not without good reason. This was particularly the case with Soundgarden's first foray into the mainstream with the backing of A&M Records, a rather surprising eventuality considering the generally schizophrenic character of the material that they had previously released through Sub Pop and SST, let alone the continual insistence of the band themselves that they wanted nothing to do with the heavy metal scene. Be all this as it may, the mechanics of Soundgarden's sound during what could be dubbed their middle era (i.e. 1989 through 1992) is possessed of a heavily metallic character, largely informed by the utterly obvious influence of Black Sabbath, Motorhead, and even some elements of the somewhat stoner/doom leanings of their former SST label mates Saint Vitus. Combined with a more polished production and an obvious abandonment of the band's punk sensibilities and oddball eclecticism that were all over Ultramega OK, their 1989 sophomore effort Louder Than Love could perhaps be best understood as an early stoner metal classic, without it losing any degree of its obvious uniqueness and stylistic adventurism.

Unpacking what exactly a stoner metal album would sound like circa 1989 when fellow pioneers Sons Of Kyuss (later Kyuss) were getting their first demo out and most of the bands exhibiting traits of said style were more closely associated with the doom metal traditionalism of Trouble is a difficult undertaking, and it could be argued that this album is atypical even within said context. There are elements of spacey progressive rock and even a hint of psychedelic atmospheric that play into how the guitars are layered together, but it is tempered into a fairly typical late 80s production where the drums have more of a forceful character to them that lends itself to a mainline late 80s metal/rock character. This forms a rather curious synchronicity that plays into a fairly similar area as where Black Sabbath might have gone had they stuck with their signature 70s sound after Ozzy had left, and Chris Cornell's banshee-like shrieks that are often compared to Robert Plant actually come off as more of a raggedy hybrid of Osbourne's higher-pitched wails during the mid-70s and the glass-shattering mayhem of Ian Gillian when at his peak. Nevertheless, the oddball timing of the rocking, 80s sounding anthem "Get On The Snake", the quirky psychedelic doom nightmare "I Awake" and the dreary doom turned thrashing meandering of "Gun" essentially run the gambit of possible interpretations of metal while staying mostly within the Sabbath paradigm.

Yet perhaps the most overriding factor in this album's uniqueness, not only within the broad context of 1989 but also within the narrower one of Soundgarden's career, is that it strikes a perfect balance between the band's more humor-driven past and their overly serious and depressing future. There are a few moments of overt comedy like the Sabbath-infused rocker and parody of glam band innuendo "Big Dumb Sex", to speak nothing for the brilliant speed metal infused tale of friends getting it on with friends' moms "Full On Kevin's Mom", but the overall picture drawn here is one of nuanced seriousness that plays well to their doom-leaning sound, yet also ironically puts them into similar territory to contemporary acts in the heavy metal scene such as Skid Row and Guns 'N' Roses, at least from a lyrical standpoint. Perhaps the most socially aware offering of the pack is a heavy-thudding nod to Sabbath's Vol. 4 sound "Hands All Over", taking a critical look at human impact upon the environment with a correspondingly dense musical backdrop and Cornell wailing in the polluted stratosphere. Meanwhile, there is a sense of horror that paints over the slow-crawling Sabbath-worship of "No Wrong No Right" that hearkens all the way back to the early 70s sound of said band, ditto the slightly less slow and more tuneful yet sorrowful sounding "Loud Love".

Though it may prove an unpopular position among those who follow Soundgarden's career religiously and lean more into the mainstream grunge narrative who point to Superunknown as this band's magnum opus, as well as more metal minded folks who will tend to point to Bad Motorfinger as their crowning achievement, this album represents this band at their absolute best. Ironically enough, the masterful balance of seriousness and humor that is struck here is ultimately the result of a compromise between Soundgarden's ideological opposition to the goofiness of the 80s L.A. scene and the somewhat more measured yet still steeped in 80s slickness that defined a number of late 80s entries into the rock/metal world. It mostly manifests through the production quality that resulted from pressure from their label to put something together that would still be marketable to a 1989 audience, even though musically it was more indicative of a 70s mindset. It doesn't outright eschew virtuoso musicianship when looking not only at a few shred-happy solos out of Kim Thayil, but also the progressively tinged songwriting, but it avoids any indication of showboating as well. In essence, it's a metal album by a band that was in denial about what they were writing, and has only a tangential connection with what made them a commercial success years later. It's only a grunge album in the way that Sanctuary's Into The Mirror Black would be considered grunge, because it came out of a band from Seattle.