Review

Soundgarden's 'Superunknown' at 20: Classic Track-By-Track

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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."

MORE CLASSIC TRACK-BY-TRACK REVIEWS:
Pearl Jam's 'Vs.' at 20 | Nirvana's 'In Utero' at 20
Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral' at 20

"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.

"Like Suicide"
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."

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