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As successful artistically as it was commercially - 90%

Agonymph, July 21st, 2019
Written based on this version: 1994, CD, A&M Records (Europe & Australia)

In hindsight, the title of Soundgarden’s fourth album ‘Superunknown’ is almost ironic, as the album – and its singles in particular – turned the Seattle-based band into a bestselling rock act. In a way, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Soundgarden consisted of four great songwriters and in Chris Cornell, they had easily the greatest singer of the entire Seattle scene. On the other hand, the band’s fearless experimentalism, as well as their penchant for odd time signatures and dissonance made them the least likely huge rock act of the era. However, that is exactly what makes ‘Superunknown’ as successful artistically as it is commercially.

As tempting as it is to call ‘Superunknown’ a sellout record, the opposite is actually true. Sure, it is notably less metallic than ‘Badmotorfinger’, but instead, this is a textured, sonically rich record that explores all the extremes of rock music. From the punky bite of ‘Kickstand’ to the psychedelic leanings of ‘Head Down’ and the dark pop supremacy of ‘Black Hole Sun’, ‘Superunknown’ is Soundgarden’s ‘Physical Graffiti’. To do that without alienating your core audience is not an easy feat, but then again, Soundgarden never released the same kind of album twice in a row, so their fans knew they could expect something different.

Unlike many albums of the era, the singles that were culled from the album actually fit the general atmosphere of the record well. First single ‘Spoonman’ is as unconventional rhythmically as anything the band released up until that point and the downbeat semi-ballad ‘Fell On Black Days’ is one of the greatest songs Soundgarden ever released. The way Cornell’s voice commands the dynamics of the song over that simple, but brutally effective guitar riff is nothing short of genius. ‘Let Me Drown’ is a powerful opening track and the subdued, yet forceful ‘Fresh Tendrils’ really deserves more appreciation than it tends to get.

Fortunately, the Black Sabbath-inspired doom metal riffing has not disappeared. While nothing is of ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’ proportions, there are no less than three songs that come close. ‘4th Of July’ is a sludgy, dissonant dirge on which Cornell’s understated vocals take a back seat to the riffs, which are right in front of the mix. The monstrous groove of ‘Mailman’ is evidence that Soundgarden shares a lot of influences with Alice In Chains and the riff work of ‘Limo Wreck’ is a clear tribute to Sabbath, while the chorus houses Cornell’s finest vocal performance on the record. Closing the record on a strong note, ‘Like Suidice’ feels like a blend of alternative rock and southern blues. It’s something which is not attempted often, but works very well.

So is ‘Superunknown’ better than ‘Badmotorfinger’? Of course it isn’t. ‘Badmotorfinger’ was a monumental release on which all the stars aligned ridiculously perfectly. ‘Superunknown’ is just about as good a follow-up anyone could wish for. The album shows a band refusing to compromise and surprisingly, that eventually gave them the audience they deserved. Soundgarden was always a band that defied genres or scenes and no record is better evidence of that than ‘Superunknown’. A rare example of a breakthrough record that does not pander to the masses. Not even a little.

Recommended tracks: ‘Fell On Black Days’, ‘Mailman’, ‘Limo Wreck’

Originally written for my Kevy Metal weblog