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.