Friday, 15 January 2010

Down on the Upside
A&M Records
Rating: 4.5/5

With a Soundgarden reuinion now on the cards for the new year, I found myself re-listening to their last album, 1996's Down on the Upside, which not only produced a great album, but resulted in fatal tensions that split the band. The writing impetus was shifted from Cornell/Thayil to Cornell/Shepherd for much of the album, and consequently it is a more restrained affair; some of the riffing of previous efforts remains, but there is a much more conscious drive towards coherent song writing and development of structures. Although Thayil lamented the loss of influence (and granted, 'Never the Machine Forever', his sole track, is a great song), being limited to playing leads forces him to really push the envelope when putting his stamp on the record, and from the intro to 'Pretty Noose' to the explosive solo on 'Tighter and Tighter', it is clear that his playing has never sounded better.

There are some throwaway tracks; 'Ty Cobb' in particular is all filler, no killer, and single 'Blow up the Outside World' seems to be a conscious effort to write a 'Black Hole Sun II', but that aside they also drop the awesome fast rocker 'No Attention', laid-back 'Dusty', 'Switch Opens' and incredible album closer 'Boot Camp', as well as the afore-mentioned 'Never the Machine Forever' and 'Tighter and Tighter'. The highlight, however, is clearly 'Burden in my Hand'. Beginning with an acoustic introduction, it quickly moves into a driving, almost liquid chord passage that carries the listener along at a frantic pace; Swervedriver, take note: this is music for motion. With its verse it seems to presage the rapid, bass-led pulse of Muse's 'Stockholm Syndrome', but for all its differences to the Soundgarden canon that has come before, with Cornell's reverb laden voice in the mix it is unmistakably Soundgarden.

So, last album: best album, at least in my humble opinion. But this doesn't necessarily guarantee that the reunion is a good idea. For all of its atmospherics and development, it still alienated a lot of fans in much the same way that Machina did for the Smashing Pumpkins. They also reformed, and Billy Corgan's solution to the problem was to try and create a Mellon-Collie bastardisation with bits and pieces of Machina- and Adore-era Pumpkins
(and even an unwelcome hint of Queen) thrown into the mix. The result? But for a few great moments ('Bleeding the Orchid', 'Doomsday Clock', the solo from 'That's the Way') the album was a disappointment, and a let-down to those that believed the band had called it a day on a high. Let's hope that Soundgarden don't make the same mistakes the Pumpkins did then; a Down on the Upside II would be far more welcome than a Badmotorfinger II in my book.

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