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Night of the Living Led

If you thought it was wacky, cool, normal or stupid when everyone in the world from critics to moshers started liking Led Zeppelin a few years ago, check this out: In the time since, "Zeppelin" has become an entire category of music, and scientists have come up with Zeppelogical studies showing that Zeppelin has split naturally into three primary subsystems that bear explicating here.

The largest of the groups contains bands that seem to know Zeppelin in the biblical sense, or at least appear to have spent large blocks of time as youngsters listening to Led Zeppelin's second and fourth albums. These Zeppelin clones go by names like Kingdom Come and Bonham (yes, John's son's band). The product the Zepoids have spit out has been as honest and deep as the radio programmers who once fooled a bunch of listeners into thinking Kingdom Come was you-know-who by not telling who it was.

But no less important in the realm of Zeppeland is Zeppelin for People Who Wear Black, or, more simply, Alternative Zeppelin. Going by names such as the Cult and Jane's Addiction, Alt-Zep bands are careful to avoid cutting their audiences a piece of raw Zeppelin they might choke on. Instead, they saute the mighty pound of Zeppelin in a psychedelic-punk-grunge gravy so it comes out tasting like Zeppelin and stinking like art. The recipe? Physical Graffiti.

The third classification, Larger Than Led, consists of a band from Seattle called Soundgarden. And the first thing you need to know about Soundgarden is that the group makes Led Zeppelin, Kingdom Come, Bonham, the Cult, and Jane's Addiction look a wee bit wimpy. If Kingdom Come, Bonham, the Cult, and Jane's Addiction are Zeppelin photocopies, Soundgarden is a forgery that looks more like the original than the original itself. If Led Zeppelin were Superman, then Soundgarden is kryptonite.

The band puts itself in a trance of metallic heaviness, then throws around an aural medicine ball that sounds a lot louder than it really is. Kim Thayil lobs out controlled doses of Jimmy-Page-style guitar heroics, like a buzzsaw tearing up sheet metal. Drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Hiro Yamamoto lock up for Bonham-Jones rhythms that are deep and epic, and singer Chris Cornell sounds like an acoustically perfect room full of Robert Plants.

Given this, you're probably thinking something like, "So now that Zeppelin has come full circle and produced a version of itself that seems to need an antigrowth hormone to stop it from sounding bigger than Godzilla, the case is closed. We can all stop requesting `Stairway to Heaven' and start asking for `Full on Kevin's Mom' instead."

Not quite, Led-Heads. For one thing, Soundgarden isn't remotely as accessible as other Zeppelin offspring. Louder Than Love is a two-sided pie divided into twelve neat sections that would appear to be songs. In fact, they sound more like movements in an hour-long sonic symphony.

"I enjoy the fact that Louder Than Love is a bunch of songs that have the same feel," Chris Cornell says during a recent phone interview before a show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "It's more like the first Pink Floyd record was. . . . A record should not be a bunch of four-minute commercials. It should be an experience."

Although Cornell makes you get out Led Zeppelin's first album to see if this isn't the same band, he says Soundgarden is hardly the worst offender. "If you have Seventies influences, you get compared to Led Zeppelin. They were the paradigm. The Mission get compared to them. . . . Great White, Whitesnake, us, the Cult, and to me the ones that deserve it are Bonham's band and Kingdom Come. I heard a couple of songs Great White did that were total Led Zeppelin copies. The Bonham record is kind of a joke. It sounds exactly like Zeppelin, from the production to the handpicking of a singer who would sound exactly like Robert Plant."

And Cornell doesn't? "I don't think I really have any direct influences as far as singing goes," Cornell insists. "I do as far as vocal melodies--a lot of black soul singers, Syd Barrett and then Tom Waits. I don't really think my voice sounds like anybody."

But while Led Zeppelin's pop sounds appealed to the mainstream, Soundgarden's style is noncommercial--if you're using the regular rotation on most radio stations as a yardstick. Just when it seems the band is gonna hit on a catchy riff and play it out until it lodges in your brain and you have no choice but to hum, boom! they go spacy new-age heavy-metal on you. "Anyone will tell you that if you write a formula song, it works," Cornell says. "People want to know where it's going before it gets there. That kind of thing doesn't interest us. When we're writing, if we like a feel, and it's exciting, that's the only way we can do it. We can't write music any other way."

The band likely acquired its anticommercial attitude from making the rounds in the wall-of-noisy Sub Pop Records scene in Seattle. There, bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana (from which Soundgarden recruited new bassist Jason Everman to replace Yamamoto, who Cornell says quit a few months ago) get stylin' by hurling big gobs of garage-thunder, not hair spray. From there, Soundgarden went to L.A., but to the part of town no one really knows about, where SST Records lives. For this label, whose best-known commodity these days is Tempe psyche-pop trio the Meat Puppets, Soundgarden recorded Ultra Mega OK, the preview to Louder Than Love.

It was at these places, the hep bridges that connect the majors and the minors, that Soundgarden cultivated its equally obvious disdain for rock stardom. Even now, Cornell fancies he and his band as just too, well, artistic, to immerse themselves in the table of goodies available to them as big-league entities. "We're not in it for the free alcohol and attention from women," Cornell says. "We're more into it for the music and the performance end of it."

But if you really want to know how anti-establishment Soundgarden is, just ask Chris Cornell about Led Zeppelin. He will admit to liking the band, but only his own terms.

"Back in junior high school, I was irritated by them. Everybody's radio was playing them. I resent knowing every word to a song I never owned the record to. Once everybody hates it, then you have space to appreciate it.

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David Koen