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A masterpiece - 100%

Cosmic_Equilibrium, August 28th, 2014

1994 was a great year for music in general. Many, many classic albums were released that year by bands large and small, and the quality of them was so uniformly high that it's hard to pick five favourite records from that year, let alone just one. However, if I had to make such a choice, this album is the one I would nominate. In Superunknown, Soundgarden created a truly spellbinding record of such immense depth, beauty, darkness and sheer songcraft that twenty years on it still towers over the ages.

Musically, the album feels some way away from the heads-down riffing and vocal histrionics that defined Badmotorfinger. Those elements are still there, but a whole range of new textures and tones have been added to Soundgarden's sound. The result is an album with many, many degrees of light and shade. Arguably after this record, Soundgarden went a little too far towards the lighter end of the spectrum, and seemed to lose some of their rawer elements. It is the blend of the newer, more nuanced textures and melodies and the raw, from-the-gut Sabbath-style riffage and their punk/metal roots that elevate Superunknown several levels above anything else Soundgarden made before or since. Parts of the record show a distinct Beatles-style melodic influence, others seem quite psychedelic and tripped out, some sections are basic Sabbath worship and one track ["Kickstand"] is a nod to their punkier origins.

The record is also quite long in its running time. This could be a drawback, especially in the CD age, when bands pad out a decent LP's worth of songs with filler, but Superunknown pulls off the very, very rare feat of being consistently brilliant for its entire duration. While there are a few lesser tracks ["Half" is just a short interlude, and "Kickstand" and "Fresh Tendrils" are of a slightly lesser quality than the songs around them] the overall level of songwriting is just phenomenally high throughout. All the band members contribute songs to the record, and this helps to give variety and interest to the album. Each individual song has its own distinct character and vibe, yet falls seamlessly into place on the record as part of the whole.

The hit single was "Black Hole Sun", a heavy, gloomy slow-burning tune with a melancholy melody and a pleading chorus, but to be honest practically all of the songs here could have been candidates for the radio. Particular highpoints are innumerable. "Spoonman" has a very solid groove that just makes the listener want to dance/headbang intensely to it, the dynamics of the song almost compel one to do just that, and this song is always a highlight of the band's live shows. "4th July" is total Sabbath worship with a very grinding, doomy riff, possibly the heaviest song the band ever recorded. "Limo Wreck" seems to almost drag along languidly until the chorus comes and Cornell opens up and lets fly with his scream.

"Head Down" is a personal favourite. While not overly heavy, or really a metal song, it has a dreamy, somewhat tripped out vibe to it and a chorus which sounds blissful yet somewhat resigned. The effect of this song is to make the listener want to surrender, to let go as the music pushes them under, into another zone.

Lyric-wise, there is a lot to engage with here, although it's not always clear to decipher what Cornell's actually singing about. For example, "Fell On Black Days" [another single and possibly the most melancholic and downbeat point of the album] is self-explanatory and has some very bleak lyrics. "The Day I Tried To Live" on the other hand, is about Cornell deciding to try and engage with the outside world instead of shutting it out and being reclusive, but it takes a few listens to work this out [some listeners initially thought the song was about suicide - it's actually very much the opposite]. "Spoonman" has lyrics that are ostensibly about a street performer the band knew in Seattle, but lines like "All my friends are skeletons" do make one wonder if the song might be about drugs as well.

The vibe this record has is not really possible to describe adequately. It's psychedelic, Sabbathy, heavy, grinding, with lots of melodies and textures. It runs a whole gamut of emotions, and while it does overall tend towards the gloomy/introspective side of things, it's not a depressing record to listen to on the whole. On some songs, such as the title track, Cornell sounds wild and uninhibited, at other times regretful and resigned. It's a dark record, but with so many variations and brighter spots, like a forest dappled with light coming through the trees with the occasional clearing.

It is almost impossible to recommend this record enough. The songwriting is varied, interesting and of uniformly high quality, the production is excellent [and equally as key to the album's vibe as the music itself] the atmosphere is dark at times but not overwhelming or oppressive. Every song has a worthwhile melody or riff, every song is unique and yet part of a greater whole. This is not just the best record of 1994, this is an all-time classic, fit to rub shoulders with Master of Reality, Physical Graffiti and countless other masterpieces. It is songcraft and musicianship of the highest order. Any fan, serious or casual, of rock music in general [hell, music full stop] needs this album in their collection.