Down on the Upside
Extract Soundgarden's DNA and you'll see Zeppelin molecules on one helix and Sabbath matter on the other. Keep looking and you'll uncover chunks of MC5 and the Stooges, and bits of the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
You'll find, in short, the echoes of pregrunge rock.
Listing and sorting classic-rock tendencies has helped gauge the superunknown of Soundgarden's muse since the band recorded the first grunts of grunge on Sub Pop Records' first seven-inch single. Soundgarden's genetic code was still a point to ponder two years later when the band debuted the first "g"-word album on a major label, 1989's Louder Than Love.
And Soundgarden's adopted lineage remains a spectator sport on the band's latest release, Down on the Upside, a classic take on classic rock made palatable for today.
It takes about two shouted couplets from lead singer Chris Cornell on the new CD's opening cut, "Pretty Noose," to see that Black Sabbath gets the early nod for chief influence. Cornell gives it away by riding the song's sneaky smart hooks with his best Ozzy/Dio howl. On the next track, "Rhinosaur," the ghosts of Zeppelin come flying in with the sort of stop-and-start meters last heard on Houses of the Holy.
Down on the Upside is infused with a sense of immediacy and a corresponding air of import. The disc comes off as more convincing than Soundgarden's last album, the five-million-selling Superunknown, an overtly crafted and premeditated effort. That recording was at times startling--the anthemic "Black Hole Sun," in particular, was a career achievement. But a sense of calculation slowed down the album. It was as if the band had to play the life out of every note before producer Michael Beinhorn was satisfied.
For Down on the Upside, Soundgarden does away with picky producers by doing the job itself. A frill-free spontaneity fuels songs like "Never Named," with its grins of old grunge, and the equally rugged "No Attention," a head-down, hell-bent attempt to hammer punk's jagged circle into a precise metal square.
Some of Upside's most impressive moments come from Soundgarden's musicianship, such as guitarist Kim Thayil's peppered notes on "Never the Machine Forever." But while Soundgarden's exacting chops impress, Upside gets special when the band shifts gears and takes off on side trips. "Blow Up the Outside World," for example, is reminiscent of the Beatles' late-period psychedelia, the weary mindscape and pretty flowers bending one way and then snapping back in time for Cornell to scream, "I've given everything I could/ . . . to burrow down in and/Blow up the outside world." The radical change in dynamics brings to mind early Smashing Pumpkins, with Cornell's bluster a more potent replacement for Billy Corgan's coo.
The experiments don't always work. "Applebite," a bizarre entry put together by drummer Matt Cameron and Upside engineer Adam Kasper, is a gothic piece of goo that comes off like a dub mix from a haunted house. Also of limited attraction is the CD's closing cut, "Boot Camp," an uncomfortably close encounter with late-period Pink Floyd.
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Still, it's encouraging to see Soundgarden stretch. The band's already proved itself proficient at straightahead rock 'n' noise, so give it credit for coming through with an able power ballad like "Burden in My Hand," or the more ominous "Overfloater." Those songs aren't quite the essential metal fodder of Zep's "No Quarter" or Sabbath's "Lord of This World," but they don't need to be. They suffice in proving Soundgarden has avoided rear-view tunnel vision. They also show Soundgarden has managed to sidestep the flannel straitjacket that would keep the band forever banging its head in Seattle's hard-rock ghetto.
Powered by Crime
Arizona's unofficial state motto is "Where Heavy-Metal Bands Come to Die," but there's one renegade group of dunderheads still eking out a living in Vancouver, Canada. Although Vertical seems to be after Smell the Glove-style yuks with song titles like "Wipe Your Beer All Over Me Baby," "Summoned to Swill," "Stab the Cheese," "Torch Song for a Bitch" and my personal favorite, "Title Track," the guys just don't have enough funny bones in their body to pull off Spinal Tap, Mark III. Spinal Tap without the spine is more like it. The Powered by Crime track that seems to have gotten Vertical After the most attention, "The O.J. Song," will probably only seem funny to Weird Al Yankovic-style song-parody fans. Sung to the tune of "Hey Joe," it's about as predictable as the verdict: "Hey Joe, where you going with that knife in your hand?/I'm going to knock off my ol' lady, you know I caught her messin' 'round with Ronald Gold-maan!" C'mon, Robert Shapiro has ties funnier than that. But, hey, if Canada's laughin', milk it, ya metal Mounties!