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Kicking the sacred cow for posterity's sake. - 32%

hells_unicorn, June 5th, 2019
Written based on this version: 1994, CD, A&M Records

A popular sentiment of late has been the notion that rock is dead and the entire music scene has simply gone to hell without the courtesy of being provided a proper hand-basket. It's often followed by the usual canard about hypnotic keyboard-driven dance music dominating the mainstream, as though post-disco was never a thing and synth-happy pop music hasn't been a hot selling item consistently for the better part of 40 years. Then again, the occasional wailer will have a moment of accidental insight by pointing out that the only thing resembling rock music that is readily available on the radio or dominating the streaming charts nowadays, that wasn't recorded more than two decades ago, will often entail a band with at least some degree of affinity with either post-grunge or the broader alternative rock music of the 90s. This is insightful not so much due to an underlying fault with the original Seattle scene that arguably paved the way for the two aforementioned musical movements, but more so because it underscores a punishingly banal orthodoxy that has dominated rock since that time period, one that has become more blatant over the years and has culminated, in the view of this reviewer, in the soulless rot that now dominates the airwaves/internet.

This mindless, cult-like adoration and slavishness to safeness and familiarity, naturally has its roots in a handful of sacred cows that were erected during the 1990s, all of them hot sellers that were, nevertheless, possessed of a reductive obsession with the past, though repackaged to some extent to give off the aroma of freshness. One of these objects of idolatry took root at a critical period in modern rock's history, namely the recent aftermath of unwitting cultural icon Kurt Cobain's passing, though it was released about a month before the event in question and was even sampled by Cobain himself and given his vote of approval prior to its release. To those not schooled in the history of grunge, the album in question is Soundgarden's fourth studio LP Superunknown, their biggest selling album of all time, the most critically acclaimed, and also the only album that most casual listeners are likely aware of. Though one might be possessed to conclude that referring to this album as an idol of worship is meant to deride it as the product of complacency or outright laziness, to the contrary, the album is probably the most ambitious work to come out of the 1990s following the fall of metal's prominence in the continental U.S., and stands as a perfect reflection of the time that marked its birth.

Unpacking all of the glowing reactions from the critical field when this album was released and the number of artists who worked to emulate it in the coming years, including the likes of Def Leppard when considering their confused mid-90s interlude Slang (as noted by Vivian Campbell in interviews at the time), would be a fool's errand, but there are two salient points that feed into this album's commercialized mystique. The first, as noted by Rolling Stone's J.D. Considine, is that Superunknown is a harrowing listen, to the point of being even bleaker than Nirvana's In Utero. Further elucidating this sentiment and also bringing about the more important of these two points, is the words of New York Times writer Jon Pareles, "Superunknown actually tries to broaden its audience by breaking heavy-metal genre barriers that Soundgarden used to accept." In these words, Pareles exposes something that every self-respecting metal head who has praised this album has failed to comprehend, namely that this is not a metal album, and marks a massive stylistic break from Soundgarden's previous two albums, which are rightly lauded by metal heads as strong representations of the music they love.

What is Superunknown then, if not a metal album or at least an organic step in the band's evolutionary process following Badmotorfinger? The answer is that it's an experiment gone awry, a mess of past influences from the 60s and 70s, translated through a bleak, yet heavily processed and overambitious mid-90s template, played to either a plodding or halfway upbeat tempo with little accounting for continuity or flow. It is, likewise, a colossally overlong opus that has its 70 minute long duration justified by the band via an unwillingness to cut anything, further betraying a lack of focus that feeds into this album's lack of coherence. Yet despite its lyrical bleakness mixed with an obsession for the mundane when depression, drugs and suicide are given a brief respite, it is also an album that is uncharacteristically light and lacking in impact, preferring a nebulous atmospheric aesthetic mixed with a reductive array of older rock influences, most notably that of The Beatles, though there are occasional allusions to their past affinity for Sabbath and Zeppelin. Truth be told, the only consistent remnant of this band's older sound is found during Kim Thayil's lead guitar breaks, which are surprisingly more ambitious than previously, yet find themselves a bit hampered by an overemphasis on the vocals and a less than tight rhythmic backdrop.

To unpack the contents of this album by way of analogy, there are a few glimmers of decent songwriting to be found in this cacophony of stylistic meandering, like a man throwing 15 darts will occasionally flirt with a bull's eye a couple times given the number of chances allotted. The first of these is the respectably dark and dank march through doom-like territory in "Mailman", which is more sludgy and dirty than it is heavy, and is mired by a more whimpering mid-ranged croon out of Cornell (a flaw that dogs most of this album), but is a mostly decent psychedelic twist on the Sabbath aesthetic held over from Badmotorfinger. In similar fashion, the depressive creepiness of "Limo Wreck" does an ample job in capturing that fatalistic "Hand Of Doom" meets "Electric Funeral" vibe that is more befitting a dark yet slow affair. Even though it winds up being a bit stilted due to the drum production being way too dry and the snare having this annoying popping quality of sound, the murky swamp of sound that is "4th Of July" manages to work respectably well. All of these songs were obviously not featured as singles, largely because they don't exude the same sort of retro rock-infused quality that permeates the rest of these songs.

Much has been said and will continue to be said about the sizable collection of songs that did make their way from here to the singles charts, but their common thread is a strict avoidance of riff-oriented metallic impact or any degree of asymmetry. Grunge's answer to power ballads and ubiquitous radio hit "Black Hole Sun" could best be understood as a Zeppelin-infused, more musically elaborate rehash of the same structural orthodoxy that Nirvana borrowed from The Pixies and basically milked to death, with Thayil providing an array of layered guitar themes to attempt at dispelling the monotony while Cornell provides a slightly less haggard version of Cobain's out-of-tune croons during the quiet verses and a restrained version of his signature Robert Plant impression in the background. It succeeds in injecting a few momentary doses of adrenaline into a boring and cliche song structure, particularly during Thayil's guitar solo segment, but ultimately proves a sluggish rehash with little replay value. More goofy rockers like the quasi-metallic "Spoonman", along with the opener and non-single "Let Me Drown" have an initial charm of sorts and feature reasonably active riff work, but end up playing it way too safe and get old fairly quickly, ditto the somewhat bleaker and slower "Fell On Black Days".

The aforementioned hit songs, despite being weak and bereft of any staying power, actually prove to be a cut above the remnant of material found on here, most of which could be rightly dismissed as filler, if not abhorrent musical abortions that wouldn't be fit for a b-side single track. Converging at a sort of oddball mishmash of good time rock 'n' roller sounds of the 60s and likely non-ironic lyrics conveying either cynicism or angst, plodding jokes like "My Wave" and the title song "Superunknown" could best be described as sloppy attempts at emulating The Kinks and The Beatles circa Rubber Soul while also trying to maintain a supposedly dark aesthetic. Suffice it to say, it doesn't work, at all, and turns into ashes in one's mouth less than five seconds into each song. Further down the vortex of musical devolution stands a plodding folk rock blunder in "Head Down" and a minimalist, down tempo quasi-prediction of every annoying Foo Fighters song that would dominate the airwaves in the coming years dubbed "The Day I Tried To Live". Further elaboration might include unpacking the comical attempt at aping Zeppelin's latter day fascination with Indian music in "Half" or a royally pathetic and out of place attempt at kicking up the tempo punk rock style "Kickstand", but by now this album's flirtations with schizophrenia should be obvious enough.

It should be noted that althought this write up may appear to be a fit of attention-seeking contrarianism given its target of derision's near universal state of esteem (even within metal circles), that is not this author's intent. This is an earnest assessment of someone trying to make sense of what mainstream rock music has been for the past 25 years, and while this album alone doesn't account for every flash-in-the-pan alternative rock group to filter in and out of prominence since, it shares a healthy share of responsibility in it. It represents a massive first step in cutting out what degree of aggression and righteous indignation was present in the early Seattle scene, and is probably about as responsible for killing said scene as Cobain's death was in spite of its massive commercial success. Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger and even Ultramega OK are not really grunge albums in either the pejorative or overtly commercialized sense that the term implies, Superunknown is. Yet in spite of all the seemingly diabolical intentions that this assessment might imply, ultimately Superunknown is nothing more than a bloated, 70 minute long bore, and its continued legendary status is the result of trustees of rock radio gobbling it up and saying "Please sir...I want some more."