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Superunknown

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★★★★★
(306 Reviews)

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  • 1994 was a dark period for rock music. Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain had been found dead that April, presumably from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Because of this incident, many would suppose that the grunge rock dynasty would be brought to a halt. In the next couple of years, such would be the case, but not before fellow Seattle rock titans Soundgarden would release their masterpiece, Superunknown in March of 1994. While the album was released before Cobain’s death, the album didn’t really take off until summer of that year, with the release of the single “Black Hole Sun”. Soundgarden had been together since 1984, and releasing records since 1987, and even achieved minor success with those records in between, but this record was truly the most successful. This seeming swan song for grunge (although the group would release another album in 1996, before becoming defunct the following year) boasted 15 tracks, and over 70 minutes worth of music, without a single weak track. Each track is different from the other, showcasing innovation that hasn’t been seen since Zeppelin’s mid-career albums. Ultimately, the group really hit the nail on the head with this recording, which simultaneously brought them commercial success. The first track, “Let Me Drown”, kicks off the album with muscular riff-heavy rock. Chris Cornell’s vocals become more emphatic as it switches from the verse to the chorus, which aids in “pumping you up” for the rest of this record. His vocals seem, for the first time in his career, totally floating over the band, rather than just melding with the band, thus the hooks in his vocals really comes out strong. The next track, “My Wave”, was a minor hit on radio (whose highest position was somewhere around number 18 on modern rock charts). The main riff, in a strange guitar tuning, gives a bizarre tone to the instrument, which is also mixed with some wah-wah bass moves in the song’s bridge. “Fell on Black Days”, the following track, was a dark, pseudo-ballad that also made its way to radio. Chris’s vocals seem pretty low-register and melancholy for most of the song, until the end, when his signature scream (which never before felt so dramatic) carries the song out until the end. This particular track seems to be one of the favorites among Soundgarden fans. The group has often been described as the perfect combination of the dark, plodding riffs of Black Sabbath and the versatility of Led Zeppelin. Never before has this marriage become so obvious than in track 4, “Mailman”. The song begins as a detuned, plodding dirge (as it remains throughout the song), with such “uplifting” lyrics as “I’m the dirt beneath your feet/The most important fool you forgot to see”. Led Zeppelin’s influence begins to come through with the addition of the spooky Mellotron strings, bringing an eerie resonance that has rarely been heard since the mid-70’s. The title track of “Superunknown” comes next, which more or less shows an epic, Zeppelin-like feel. The track features twangy, psychedelic riffs, along with some interesting percussion parts in the bridge section. Following this song is the sweeping, acoustic-driven epic “Head Down”. Also owing a great deal to Led Zeppelin’s sound, the track is quite enjoyable nonetheless, although one may argue that it is a bit repetitive (but, repetition of a great riff is better than repeating a horrible one!). This is of course followed by the group’s most famous song, “Black Hole Sun”. Easily the anthem for the summer of 1994, Soundgarden enjoyed their biggest hit with this track, and rightfully so. The track is surprisingly innovative for such a popular song, with hints of psychedelia in the verse, as well as the bridge/solo, along with a muscular riff in the choruses. Another surprise is the fact that from what I remember, the song was never edited from its 5 minute length. The song also had one of their most bizarre music videos for this track, which also surprisingly got heavy play on MTV (but I guarantee such would not be the case today). “Black Hole Sun” was followed by yet another hit for Soundgarden, “Spoonman”, bringing us to track 8. “Spoonman” was actually the first single to be released off of Superunknown, about a month before it was released. Originally written for Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-based movie “Singles”(which featured Soundgarden playing live), the song was revamped, with a guy playing spoons during the bridge. The vibe of the song was similar to that of The Who’s “Magic Bus”, as most of Soundgarden’s music hearkens to the 60’s and 70’s. Now at track 9, about half-way through the album, we arrive at “Limo Wreck”, one of my personal favorites. This song features beautifully placed guitar harmonics, a somewhat slow 9/8 time signature feel, and an overall gloomy tone. It also features some great lyrics on Chris’s behalf: “Swallowing rivers belongs to the sea/When the whole thing washes away, don’t run to me.” Most of the song has this similar structure of lyrics. “The Day I Tried to Live” comes next, which was yet another single to be released from this record. Yet another pseudo-ballad, this one here seems to be the centerpiece of the album. It is anthemic, almost in an R&B sense, with Chris’s vocals yet again waiting until the end to really bring the high-register screams out, which seems to end on an uplifting note. Following this one is the only real song that seems to show Soundgarden’s punk influences, “Kickstand”. The shortest song on the record (only about 1 ½ minutes long), it is no less innovative. It seems to meld Led Zeppelin with The Stooges, and ends almost as abruptly as it starts. “Fresh Tendrils” showcases some funky clavinet (Physical Graffiti anyone?), although it does not particularly work with the sound this track was going for. It is still a strong track, and certainly worth a listen. “4th of July” is by far one of Soundgarden’s spookiest, and darkest tracks. It is seriously Soundgarden’s one true doom metal number, with detuned riffs, a plodding drum beat, and lyrics speaking of the apocalypse (brought about brilliantly, as the narrator thought the explosions were because it was the 4th of July). Following this is a strange, folky track called “Half”. This features vocals completely by bassist Ben Shepard, playing a twangy mandolin part. Strings are also recorded in the mix, making the soundscape even more epic (despite its short length). Finally, we arrive at track 15, “Like Suicide”. Starting off very light, the song does not kick into full gear until around the second verse, before really bringing it home at the very end, in full Soundgarden fashion. Its seven minute length rounds out the record, as it is truly an end to an incredible record. Popular rock music has not seen much innovation like this since the release of Superunknown. Most great records released since then have been buried by the more “commercial” ones, which has unfortunately gotten worse in the past few years with the rising popularity of cookie-cutter, overly produced records, which give no real substance or innovation to music. It’s hard to believe that a record that could be compared to “Houses of the Holy” or “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” was released only 10 years ago, and that so much has changed in the music world as well. Superunknown is truly a testament to how much has changed in popular music over the past 10 years. However, as the record took awhile for me to fully appreciate, I am sure the rock world will soon recognize its glory in the next 10 years, as the same was done for Led Zeppelin’s and Black Sabbath’s records. As a musician myself, it would be my dream to carry on the torch that these bands have carried, being able to be ground-breaking, and achieve success simultaneously.

    Posted on December 30, 2009