Soundgarden was anything but 'superunknown,' when it unleashed its epic album of that name 20 years ago today on March 8, 1994. The Seattle quartet had existed for a decade: they were among the first acts to record for Sub Pop and a leading band in the Seattle scene that would grow to worldwide prominence in 1991 as its "Badmotorfinger" completed a triple salvo with Nirvana's "Nevermind" and Pearl Jam's "Ten."
But while "Badmotorfinger" rocked the airwaves with "Rusty Cage," and "Outshined" and ultimately went platinum, the band's 1994 follow up blew up far larger. Upon release, the massive, intricate "Superunknown" vaulted directly to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and was certified five-times platinum. The album, which introduced enduring rock favorites including "Black Hole Sun," "Fell On Black Days," "The Day I Tried To Live," stands as the biggest album of Soundgarden's career. "Spoonman," and "Fell on Black Days" earned the band Grammys for best metal performance and best hard rock performance.
"Superunknown," as the title suggests, is a 70-minute-and-13-second CD-filling treatise built on singer Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd sonically shining light into the dark recesses of the human soul, exploring the unknowable and unseeable. And it marked somewhat of a departure from the band's previous signature hard-charging sound. The drop d tunings, the varied time signatures, and Chris Cornell's wail are still there, sure. But so is a strong tinge of psychedelia, and chillingly effective restraint in places (reminding us how quieter can be perfect and haunting).
"There is a degree of maturity at work. You can hear it in our decision not to rev the engine so high. In the end I think it's more powerful," Thayil told Musician magazine in 1994, aptly calling the album, "an M.C. Escher kind of thing."
"I write songs best when I'm depressed," Cornell said to Melody Maker at the time. And indeed his lyrical imagery ("eyes of blood and bitter blue") completes the vast tapestry of black tunes mined with echos, a taste of mellotron and clavinet here and there, and secret pockets of crossroads magic (Thayil solos weaving, Cornell singing with himself) among the warped sea of bigger guitars, drums and bass.
Michael Beinhorn, who produced the album with the band at Seattle's Bad Animals studio in the summer of 1993, told Billboard in 1994 of how he'd overload "tape to the point of distortion, using massive EQ, massive compression. We experimented with chains of four equalizers and four compressors in one signal chain, on one instrument. The end result is a record that is both incredibly dense and overwhelmingly present. There is a tangible sense of air being moved."
Soundgarden would go on to release 1996's "Down on the Upside" before disbanding in 1997. Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in 1998 and has been in that band ever since, and Chris Cornell went on to success as a member of Audioslave and as a solo artist. But Cameron, Cornell, Shepherd and Thayil reunited to reform Soundgarden in 2010 (with Cameron now a member of both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and released "King Animal" in 2012. The band are honoring the 20th anniversary of "Superunknown" not only with a five-disc reissue, but will be playing the entire album on March 13 at the iTunes Festival durnig SXSW in Austin, Texas.
"Let Me Drown"
The album opens driving guitars and what, on previous Soundgarden albums, would have read as a comparatively modulated Chris Cornell, who's ominously singing before he rises, for a fleeting time, up to his full voice, insisting "let it go / let it go" ahead of a Thayil workout. Producer Michael Beinhorn plays a piano part.
A three-, then four-stroke riff from Thayil and a shout for Cornell introduces "My Wave," an entreaty to do what ever moves you (cry, hate, pray), just "keep it off my wave." Cameron's drums and Shepherd's bass kick in and Cornell takes it to a lower register.
"Fell On Black Days"
A sinuous guitar groove winds behind Cornell's solemn vocals, beginning contemplative but building until he's belting, "how would I know that this could be my fate?" "'Fell On Black Days' was like this ongoing fear I've had for years," Cornell told Melody Maker in 1994. "It's a feeling that everyone gets. You're happy with your life, everything's going well, things are exciting - when all of a sudden you realize you're unhappy in the extreme, to the point of being really, really scared."
There's a slow grind among the sludgy sounds of "Mailman," which features music by Matt Cameron. But Cornell sings as if the lyrics are an incantation, oscillating between a breathy tenor and measured high notes; "All your kisses / turned to spit in my face." Cameron mans a mellotron that bends the space-time continuum of the song, and Cornell reaches up so high on the chorus ("I know I'm headed for the bottom / but I'm riding you all the way!") the sound distorts around him. "When Chris sings high, he tends to sing harder and louder than just about anything on this earth," producer Michael Beinhorn told Billboard in 1994. "He literally blew through a bunch of condenser mikes. I've never seen anyone do that."
Listen for Kim Thayil at 1:57. He sneaks into the left channel with a dirty little solo fit for Mississippi backroads, as Cornell finishes his description of the 'superunknown' as something that, "first it steals your mind and then it steals your…" Letting Thayil's guitar thematically finish the sentence Cornell will sing in full later ("then it steals your soul.")
With music and lyrics both written by bassist Shepherd, "Head Down" is taste of acoustic guitars and rolling drums usher in Cornell singing high, giving just a hint of the Beatles' early psychedelic period.
"Black Hole Sun"
Spacey, synthy sounds fill the left ear of this mid-tempo dystopic dreamscape. Cornell is disturbingly calm as he sings of "boiling heat, summer stench / 'neath the black the sky looks dead." Listen closely to the right channel and you'll pick up an almost subliminal second Cornell during a later chorus, distorted and enraged shouting "black hole sun won't you come and wash away the rain" while the main vocal remains controlled and unperturbed. But it's hard, to this day, to not imagine the surreal Howard Greenhalgh-directed music video any time the song plays: suburban scenes twisting into an apocalyptic nightmare of unnaturally enlarged eyes, bathing beauties with lizard tongues, burning dolls and stormy skies.
This thundering rocker is nevertheless touched with percussion -- including clacking spoons played by the song's namesake, Seattle street performer Artis the Spoonman -- that rattles like bones. The song began life long before "Superunknown," however. An acoustic demo of the Cornell-penned song is played during Cameron Crowe's 1992 film, "Singles," which features Cornell in a bit part and shows Soundgarden performing. Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament, a longtime pal who also appeared in "Singles," is credited in the liner notes for coming up with the title.
Centered on Cornell's enunciated, melodic vocals atop the music written by Cameron and Thail, the song even goes so far to credit someone for "harmonic guidance": Fred Chalenor. The song thematically picks back up the thread of fierce suns and dissolution. "The wreck of you / is the death of you all."
"The Day I Tried To Live"
Keening guitars, a marching bass and drums, and Cornell flirting with hopelessness, "Live" explores further dark corners like an unfrightened explorer. "The lives we make never seem to get us anywhere but dead / The day I tried to live, I wallowed in blood and mud with all the other pigs."
Guiitarist Kim Thayil was behind the music for this short unabashed rock-out, fast and driving.
Drummer Matt Cameron wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Cornell. The winding, delirious "Tendrils" relies on the interworking of Thayil's guitars and Shepherd's bass with Cameron's beat as Cornell goes to work on the repeated phrase, "Long time coming."
"4th of July"
A detuned bass and pitch-black dirge guitars lead this five minute journey before Cameron comes in with a crash around a minute in, and Cornell begins singing with himself, one channel in a lucid middle-register, another in his most operatic high wail. "Now I'm in control" he sings first. "Now I'm in the fall out."
Bassist Ben Shepherd wrote the music and lyrics for this nimble, Eastern-influenced track on which he takes the lead vocal role, singing from behind an effects-washed high-pitched mask while distressed viola and cello figure in.
Cornell had a specific death in mind when he wrote the seven-minute coda of "Superunknown." "I was writing the music to that in may basement when I heard this loud thump from above," Cornell told Melody Maker in 1994. "When I got to the door, there was this beautiful female robin writhing on the ground. She'd broken her neck flying into the window. It was obviously broken, flipped back…" Cameron's drums start out front, marking time, bass is next, growling, cresting guitars follow, finally Cornell comes in with a steady tenor, singing, "dazed out in a garden bed with a broken neck lays my broken gift." Thayil and his ax go on full attack from there. Later, as the music swirls, he sings, "She lived like a murder but she died / just like suicide."