Register Forgot login?

© 2002-2019
Encyclopaedia Metallum

Best viewed
without Internet Explorer,
in 1280 x 960 resolution
or higher.

Privacy Policy

Strength in numbers - 74%

gasmask_colostomy, December 7th, 2015

Soundgarden's metal/commercial qualities have alraedy been discussed at such great length that I don't feel the need to go into it here. However, I feel I do need to mention that I don't consider 'Superunknown' either a metal or a commercial album, since almost every song found in this monster full-length resembles a different aspect of their sound, plus a few drawn from outside, almost turning the album into a tour of the 90s by virtue of the multiple styles. What sets this apart from other rock albums of the same era (and especially those from the Seattle scene that Soundgarden were a key part of) is its tendency to experiment optimistically and freely, so that it often sounds joyful, rather than pensive, pissed, or pleading.

First up, 'Superunknown' is a long album and, by its varied nature, can feel rather like a compilation. This leads to vast disparities in intensity and mood between individual tracks and across the album as a whole. However, it still remains a satisfying listen in entirety due to the lazy feel of the songs and the detailing therein. The pace isn't particularly quick, even taking into account some of Soundgarden's sludge-via-Sabbath roots, so the songs sprawl rather wider than they otherwise might, including spacious clean, attacking distorted, and brooding heavy parts that cover many more musical bases and emotions than most bands do in a career. As such, it's hard to say that 'Superunknown' becomes boring during its 70 minutes, although the stamina of most listeners will be tested by the time the drearily repetitive 'Fresh Tendrils' arrives 50 minutes in. The opening and closing sections of the album actually have fewer great ideas, so the lack of energy and innovation can cause problems in attention span and the overall judgement of quality.

Without mentioning most of the separate songs here, it's tough to give an accurate idea of the sound and style of this release. There isn't so much typical sludge or speed as the band had dealt with in the past, though the idiosyncracies of the four crazies on board are still more than apparent, with plenty of wittily weird lyrics, off-kilter tempos, and art rock noise emanating from several of the songs, even those with an eye on the radio. The title track, for example, gets away with banging out a smooth country rock riff for about two minutes straight before the rampant chorus stomps all over the flow, Chris Cornell declaratively wailing "Alive in the superunknown" until Kim Thayil decides it's time to drench everything in effortless six-string honey. The big ending contrasts bizarrely with the low-key opening of 'Head Down' that lurches unsteadily into a clean groove and eerie lost-child vocals that sound like a more nervous, less bug-eyed version of something from Alice in Chains' 'Sap' EP. And it ends with a drum solo. Duh. Then there's the mellow creeping 'Black Hole Sun' with the growing chorus that everyone and their dog has heard, yet can't seem to forget. Cornell is absolutely pivotal to this one, shrieking out the refrain again and again in the closing minute over otherwise mediocre musical backing.

That mid-section of the album perhaps gives a taste of the general content, but every song has a little surprise that can unsettle the balance of your mood once again. All four musicians are doing something notable in most of the songs, especially Ben Shepherd, whose bass prevents some of the sparser and mellower tracks from losing energy, while he supplies the rockers with a groove and force that instinctively satisfies. Matt Cameron plays around the riffs, rarely settling to keep time, but actually exaggerating the jaggedness of Thayil's guitar by adding extra rhythms. He too comes through strongly at slower moments and his performance on 'The Day I Tried to Live' is worth attending to, as the jerks of percussion provide the whole mood of that song. Thayil is a little bit like Faith No More's Jim Martin in some senses, since his style is much more metal and traditional than that of his bandmates, yet he also knows how to inject the weirdness alongside the classic shredding chops, such as on 'Limo Wreck', which manages to go from a sinister slow-burn in psych/doom style to a belter of a chorus that Cornell once again gives everything to. In fact, Cornell's voice is probably the best reason to listen to 'Superunknown', since he is one of the most dynamic and powerful singers alive, even though his pipes have more in common with some of the 70s rock singers (Robert Plant or Steven Tyler) and certainly are one element that makes me incredibly sceptical about his band's presence on the Metal Archives.

Those talents are all given free rein to create, everyone receiving songwriting credits at some point on 'Superunknown', though they don't hit it off every time. 'Let Me Drown' is a dull opener for such an exciting album, with none of the distinctive features that mark the other numbers, while I'm also left cold by '4th of July' and 'My Wave'. '4th of July' has received much acclaim among the less commercially-minded, yet Cornell's impassioned delivery is the only highlight of the slow-moving song, the riffs staying at a gradual chug for most of its duration. 'My Wave', on the other hand, is just too simple and catchy for an album with this much creativity, suffering by comparison to the weightier and more thoughtful efforts. 'Like Suicide', the sprawling last track, also lacks some direction at times, which is especially a hinderance at the end of such a long album.

To sum up, I'm in agreement with those who believe that 'Superunknown' defiantly transcends the grunge scene as well as the initial conditions that gave it birth, although I don't consider this album to be an absolute masterpiece. It's very deep and subtle for a commercial release and there's enough material here to maintain interest for a while, but the songs are somewhat uneven and some are unfitting for this kind of release. Abundant talent, amazing creativity, merely good outcome.