Monday, November 19, 2012

Brave New World

In 1999, Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith rejoined British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden for a world tour, reconvening arguably the most infamous lineup (plus one) of the greatest heavy metal band of all-time. The following year, it was announced that an overhauled classic Iron Maiden would issue a studio album of all new material. Whatever on Earth could new Maiden with Bruce Dickinson back at the microphone sound like? After all, these guys were, like, old now.

In 2000, I was a brand-new father. I was in the first years of my thirties. I was clearly sailing uncharted waters. My life had begun the most significant new chapter since I’d graduated high school. In 2000, not only did I look forward to a new Iron Maiden record by the classic lineup, I desperately needed one. I needed one to be good. Really good.

And against all possible hope and odds, Iron Maiden fucking delivered. What had been a smoldering re-interest in the band erupted into a full-on obsessive mania, one that by today has exceeded the gushing adoration I heaped on the band in high school. Iron Maiden had returned in one of the greatest third-decade comebacks in rock history, winning literally millions of new fans the entire planet over.

Iron Maiden had DONE IT. I was sure, thanks to the illumination of my heroes, that I COULD DO IT. I could be changing a stinky diaper, drudging away another day at a crap job, or kicking out the jams and setting some hearts alight with my own rock band. Whatever it was, I could do it. I COULD DO IT. Thanks, Maiden.

In 2012, veteran Seattle rock mystics, Soundgarden, following a very similar pattern to Maiden’s a decade earlier, announced that a new album was imminent. Their first album since 1996. Sixteen years. Huh.

At this point I should mention that Soundgarden were my number one most-favoritest rock band of the first half of the 1990s. By the end of the ‘80s, I had grown tired of cookie-cutter thrash metal bands, power metal pretenders, and satanic claptrap from the deepest bowels of Europe. I needed something different. Something heavy, but something different.

Since high school, I’d fallen madly in love with college rock/post-punk/120 Minutes-whose-its-whats, from Kate Bush and Cocteau Twins to The Smiths and Pixies. I wondered why there wasn’t more crock pot mish-mashing going on between all the bands I loved, heavy or not. Bands like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More were dabbling and conjuring new sounds but neither band really engaged me like cranking vintage Accept or Metallica.

Enter Soundgarden. At the strong urging of my pal Adrian, I pick up “Louder Than Love.” I might have recognized the name of the band or not. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but was intrigued. About halfway through my first listen, I became very, very puzzled. This band was heavy and vaguely reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s “Celebration Day.” Odd. The thing that struck me as most peculiar was that, although I was reminded of Zeppelin in some manner, this band absolutely, conclusively, positively did NOT remind me of the thousands of Zep imitators I’d suffered and enjoyed since beginning high school. It did NOT sound like Heart, Zebra or Fastway. Or Whitesnake. Or Kingdom Come. So if, theoretically, all these bands, Soundgarden included, were all “rippin’ off Zeppelin, man,” what was the difference? Whatever that difference was, it was THE new sound from way out (or way back) that I was searching for.

That difference was mainly punk rock. The February 11,1989 issue of Sounds magazine feature this detailed quote: "Citing Black Sabbath, Bauhaus, Devo, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, and "evil bands like Husker Du as influences, Soundgarden have recently recorded their first material for A&M- it'll be out at the end of the year." As noted by Sub Pop Records founder, Jonathan Poneman, "Soundgarden were in between, but off to the side as well."  

I saw the band open for Voivod and Danzig; I saw Chris Cornell crawl across the ceiling of Mississippi Nights in St. Louis like a spider. At another show, I witnessed him audibly sing “Outshined” over the roar of the P.A. when his mic went out. And in the middle of a gorgeous July afternoon, I watched the band put in a lackluster set at Lollapalooza II.

I was consistently blown away by their records, “Badmotorfinger” doing the impossible of eclipsing “Louder than Love,” “Superunknown” leaving me somewhat dissatisfied and “Down on the Upside” succeeding, to critical and fan disinterest, where “Superunknown” had been crowned the new King but fallen short to my ears. Then Soundgarden slipped away in the night, disbanding in 1997 after what was probably the result of a bunch of weirdo introverts constantly engaging the Corporate Rock Machine™ for the better part of a decade.

So here I am, almost forty-five years old, do I want a new Soundgarden record the way that I wanted a new Iron Maiden record twelve years ago? More important, do I actually need a new Soundgarden record? I’m most certainly NOT the person I was in 1990 or 1994. Yikes. Just the thought…

After much inner debate, I downloaded the new record from Amazon for the buyer-friendly price of $3.99. (I have since foolishly and fanboyishly purchased the record on vinyl.) It took a few listens but I soon was taking back a bunch of holier-than-thou pre-listening commentary which a week earlier, I had wretched onto the internet. I had proselytized about how badass I was and how I couldn’t be bothered with new Soundgarden unless it was going to sound somewhere between Dragged Into Sunlight and Blut Aus Nord. I was in error. The band I loved so dearly from 1989 to 1996 has dusted off the old machinery and it is most assuredly working again and in fine form.

Let me get this out of the way. This record is most definitively an extension of the sounds found on “Superunknown” and “Down on the Upside.” It does not sound like some revisionist fantasy blend of “Ultramega OK” and “Badmotorfinger.” I got over that pretty quickly and anyone with an interest in getting down with this album should as well.

The album comes like gangbusters out of the gate, the first four songs one hundred percent absolutely classic Soundgarden. I will bet all my Venom vinyl that if I put any of these four songs on a Soundgarden playlist/mix CD, a newcomer absolutely would not be able to discern a dip in quality when it came to the new songs. From the classic-rocking radio hit, “Been Gone Too Long,” through the two most utterly Soundgardenesque songs on the album: the noodley-riffing, “Non-State Actor,” the martial, pounding, “By Crooked Steps,” and the Celtic sprite dance/reggaeton groove of “A Thousand Days Before,” we’re talking pure Knights of the Sound Table.

After that one-two-three-four kick and scream, the album settles down into the nearest relative to “typical” Soundgarden mid-tempo brooding. “Blood on the Valley Floor” is the best of the songs in this fashion and on the heavier end of things. “Bones of Birds” sounds like Radiohead and Led Zeppelin making out beneath a blanket under a lonesome leafless tree in the park on a cold autumn’s afternoon. “Taree” wraps vintage Jimmy Miller-era Stone’s riffs around a chorus punctuated by fits and starts. A wondrous eight-song run concludes with the Stooges riff driven, “Attrition,” which somehow manages to rock out and be totally laid back at the same time. It reminds me of many of the lo-fi covers recorded for b-sides, such as “Touch Me” and “I Don’t Care About You,” during the “Badmotorfinger” period.
Chris Cornell’s acoustic folksy-Buckley contributions show up at this point. “Black Saturday” ain’t horrid. It’s an okay listen but not destined for repeat plays. And although the weakest track on the whole record, “Halfway There” sounds like an Evan Dando tune composed for some coming-of-age motion picture OST, it still doesn’t make me want rip the vinyl off the turntable and throw it across the room. “Worse Dreams” is much better, all tripped out, especially the finale, and has a great super-catchy thing that I think is supposed to be a chorus or maybe not. Either way it’s not loud enough. “Eyelid’s Mouth” is another Sabbath-harmony rumbler like “Blood on the Valley Floor,” just not as alluring.
The album plows to its conclusion with the magnum mantra “Rowing.” I’m sure the lyrics about the keepin’ on of the keepin’ on will cause some to cringe then flat-out vomit, but something tells me the spiritual-Chambers Brothers-“Ball of Confusion”-soulfulness could possibly be heralded as touching and heartfelt if the words rolled off the tongue of someone other than a Beautiful Boy who still would make a handsome fashion model, even at almost fifty years of age.
If you take off Cornell’s two hippy-dippy songwriting exercises, turn all the guitars up more, you would have an eleven track, 45 minute album of subtly weirdo hard rock that would virtually carpet bomb the hard rock efforts about every even remotely similar band of the past ten years. The songwriting, musicianship, attention to textural detail, and care in assembling this whole record is demonstrative of a bunch of old dudes that simply seem deeply happy to be playing music together again.
The older I get, the more I relate to bands and their songs and albums as I would actual people. It’s all about the relationship I’ve established with them. It’s about the history we have together. It’s about the winding and spiraling of the narrative of our lives, as individuals and in union. Does it have any relevance to the current standards of criticism regarding pop culture and art? Does it speak to our times? Does it represent the brightest, most heartfelt voice of the emergent generation? I don’t give a fuck.
In 2000, Iron Maiden was my best mate from high school, the guy with whom I went through all trials, successes and failures, the buddy I fondly remembered as my main movin’ metal rock. After twenty years, was still the same loveable old bloke I’d remembered from the days of rockin’ new records together, fawning over girls, and cruising the strip looking for hot action on a Friday night.
Soundgarden, on the other hand, was like my college bestie. The guy with whom I talked politics, religion and world events, the guy with whom I saw bad movies and drank beer, the guy who wiped me off the floor after yet another booze-soaked night, the guy who told me to get my act together, the guy who patiently listened through broken hearts and wishful future dreams and hopeful schemes, the guy who moved on into adulthood, got married, had kids and had made his own life.
What would meeting after fifteen-plus years be like? Would we have anything in common? Inexplicably upon meeting, all those fears once again dissipated as the conversation regarding our lives picked up where we’d left off and. Even after years of growing in different and unique directions, the commonality of our roots forged together, roots that had only grown deeper over the passing years, were something that were not to be broken.
Like relationships, not every band reunion is gonna turn out tops. For every Iron Maiden or Mission of Burma, there are another hundred Guns ‘n’ Roses or Hole comeback records skittering through the pop culture cracks. Not everyone has grown into an intelligent, wise, humorous, grounded and caring adult, intact in childlike wonder and spirit. There are a lot of mean, bat-shit-crazy, pill-popping, alcoholics carrying three divorces, two bankruptcies, possible jail time, and grown kids who won’t acknowledge their existence. They are bitter and spiteful and barely a shell their former selves.
The young twenty-something me really came of age with Soundgarden in the early 1990s. It’s a beautiful pleasure to reconnect with them in 2012. It’s a pleasure for it to feel and mean something. Welcome home, Soundgarden. It’s a brave new world, indeed.

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