Screaming Liff/Fopp
Ultraomega OK
Louder Than Love
Down On The Upside
King Animal

Screaming Life/Fopp (Sub Pop ‘86, '88, '90) Rating: B
Combining the band's first two EPs, Screaming Life (Rating: B+) and Fopp (Rating: C+), these songs generally see Soundgarden finding their legs. In particular, the Fopp EP is forgettable, featuring a decent original song ("Kingdom of Come"), a good cover song (Green River's "Swallow My Pride"), and two awful covers of the same song ("Fopp" and "Fopp (dub)") that was originally done by the Ohio Players. Thankfully, the Screaming Life EP (totaling six songs) is much better, starting with the somewhat thin but deliciously dirty sound rendered by producer Steve Fisk (with engineering help from Sub Pop house producer Jack Endino). The songs aren't always there, though, and the performances are hit and miss as well. For example, Chris Cornell, who would become the band's biggest asset, all but ruins "Tears To Forget" and "Little Joe" with his horrible vocals. A shame, really, as the former has a decent punk groove and the latter melodic guitars, though they'd be better off leaving funk metal attempts to the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, and Faith No More. Fortunately, "Entering" and "Hand Of God" suit the band's style much better, and though neither are especially memorable from a songwriting standpoint, both feature extremely powerful playing. Better yet is "Hunted Down," an intense grinder with an air of menace, and "Nothing To Say," the band's first truly classic track on which Cornell unleashes his paint peeling screeches as the guitars swirl around him. The band would get much better, but these songs prove that Soundgarden was plenty good to begin with.

Ultraomega OK (SST ‘88) Rating: B
A continuation of the style of Screaming Life (but thankfully not Fopp), Ultraomega OK gets bogged down by its murky sound and inconsistent songwriting, but fortunately Soundgarden’s talent shines through the majority of the time. Unfortunately, “665” and “667” are “ironic” experiments whose best attributes are their song titles and brief running times (1:37 and :56), while bassist Hiro Yamamoto sings “Circle Of Power,” and awfully at that. Elsewhere, the band fares much better on strong songs such as “Flower,” “All Your Lies,” “Beyond The Wheel,” and “Nazi Driver,” while a looser, more jam-based vibe marks songs such as “Mood For Trouble” and “He Didn’t.” In what would become Soundgarden trademarks, dirge-like attempts are interspersed with faster paced punkier numbers, but the band obviously leans far closer towards the metal side of things. Interestingly, the band covers Howlin' Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” and as could be expected the old blues song is undone by its own repetitiveness, though that’s certainly a cute Rob Halford impersonation there at the end. The band also “covers” John Lennon’s “One Minute Of Silence,” but that’s just the band being ironic again. Which only goes to show that Soundgarden are not funny, a fact that they thankfully remember for the remainder of this dirty, hard-hitting grungefest. As such, though I’d call this both their weakest and least accessible full length album, and therefore not the place to start for neophytes, I'd still recommend it to hardcore Soundgarden fans. After all, when Soundgarden break through the murk their playing remains extremely powerful, and it’s always cool to check out the comparatively humble beginnings of a big-time band.

Louder Than Love (A&M ‘90) Rating: B+
After building up a big buzz on the independent Sub Pop and SST labels, Louder Than Love, the band’s major label debut, again saw this Seattle quartet worshipping at the dual altars of hard rock deities Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, as the dirge-like guitar lines attest. The production is better this time, though, and standout tracks such as “Ugly Truth,” “Hands All Over,” and “Loud Love” all showed the promise that Soundgarden would later fulfill in becoming one of the best hard rock bands of the ‘90s. The band immediately delivers the goods with “Ugly Truth,” a chugging metal missile led by Kim Thayil’s bold riffing and Chris Cornell’s instantly awe-inspiring vocal wail. The swirling wall of sound on “Hands All Over” is hypnotizing and shows off the band’s keen sense of dynamics by presenting a nice mix of light (bright melodic riffs) and dark (Cornell’s wail from beyond and “kill your mother” lyrics) elements, while “Loud Love” offers the purest evidence of the band’s primordial power. Though none of the other rather one-dimensional and at-times lumbering songs rise quite so high, this is a consistently solid set that’s much slower, sludgier, and (let’s face it) grungier than its subsequent big brothers. Of course, it’s also less polished and together sounding, as some of the music here fails to mesh well with Cornell’s histrionic vocals. Also, though Cornell demonstrates pipes to kill for he hadn’t yet learned the value of restraint, and the band’s sound had yet to coalesce into the sleek powerhouse they would soon become. Other notable tracks include “Get On The Snake,” an impressive (and comparatively lively) grinder, and “Big Dumb Sex,” which is as deliberately dumb (and fun) as its title would suggest (Guns n’ Roses would later cover it). The funny, punkish "Full On Kevin's Mom" also shows Soundgarden starting to get the hang of this irony thing, but the band are definitely at their best when showing off their more serious side. Still, for all its considerable strengths (clearly this was the band's best effort yet), the majority of Louder Than Love is more an appealing appetizer for future breakthroughs than an essential Soundgarden release.

Badmotorfinger (A&M ‘91) Rating: A
Soundgarden became a great band on Badmotorfinger. Light years ahead of Louder Than Love and everything else the band had done to date, Badmotorfinger announced the emergence of an awesome hard rock force by showing that Soundgarden was much more than just a one-trick grunge machine. This far more varied and experimental album was part of the Great Grunge Explosion of 1991 (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), and it slowly started breaking Soundgarden to the masses. Though the Sabbath homages continue here, the band takes Sabbath’s plodding, evil rhythms, steps up the pace, and adds multi-colored layers of melody. The end result is still an extremely dirty and bass-heavy sound, but psychedelic elements also lend credence to the band’s snobbish “we’re not heavy metal” stance. Immediately picking up the pace from its leaden-paced predecessor, "Rusty Cage" is an instant highlight that showcases this album's improvements, namely clearer, more precise playing and catchier melodies. "Outshined" is a slower paced chugger, but its iron clad riffs and bright, singable chorus makes it another standout track. As with most of the songs here, Cornell steals the show with a dazzling display of earsplitting screeches and plaintive wails not heard since the heyday of Robert Plant and Ian Gillan. The rest of the band is also imposing, as daring D-tuned guitarist Kim Thayil, powerful drum pounder Matt Cameron, and new bassist Ben Shepard (who obviously has his amp cranked to 11) show that they can be an overwhelming unit (Cornell also plays guitar and is the band's primary songwriter). The brutal bass-driven beast that is "Slaves & Bulldozers" certainly isn't for the faint of heart, what with its lurching rhythms, guitar heroics, and Cornell's somewhat over-the-top vocals (which only he could pull off), but this impressive if plodding epic is definitely for me, while the superb "Jesus Christ Pose" should appeal to any hard rock fan. Distinguished by Cameron's fierce tribal drums and Thayil/Cornell's razor sharp riffing, this incredibly intense song shows a sleeker Soundgarden firing on all cylinders, with Cornell's commanding vocals again providing the proverbial icing on the cake. After a couple of less impressive efforts - "Face Pollution" is a fast-paced thrasher on which the songwriting isn't as solid, and the almost poppy "Somewhere" is good but finishes much weaker than it starts, a problem that plagues several songs here - comes another epic highlight in the highly psychedelic "Searching With My Good Eye Closed," which is all about building up the tension before the release of several soaring climaxes. The high quality continues with "Room A Thousand Years Wide," whose most outstanding attributes are its crunching riffs and of course Cornell’s vocals, while "Mind Riot" is one of those great album tracks that makes their later A-Sides compilation superfluous. The song instantly stands out due to its brighter melody, and when the sharp guitars stab through the melody as Cameron again pounds away its pretty clear that something special is about to happen; when Cornell comes in I can only shake my head in awe at the peerlessness of his performance. Needless to say that song would be tough to top, and "Drawing Flies" is merely a decent "catch your breath" type of filler track. "Holy Water," which again sees Soundgarden flirting with the catchier choruses that would fully flower on their next release, is much better if not quite a highlight, unlike "New Damage," which closes out a classic (if overly long) album with yet another absurdly powerful performance by all band members. Of course, the album is far from perfect, as not every song here is top-shelf, but the album’s highs rise to some incredible peaks, as Soundgarden deliver pure adrenalized power.

Superunknown (A&M ‘94) Rating: A+
On Superunknown the band further tone down the grunge by cleaning up the production and tightening the songwriting, and as a result Soundgarden reached new heights of commercial acceptance (though they never achieved the level of popularity of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or even Alice In Chains). Deservedly so, it should be added, because the band’s music is more impressive than ever, as full artistic maturity is finally reached. While Cornell stakes his claim as the best hard rock singer of his generation (he'd get my vote), bassist Ben Shepard and drummer Matt Cameron prove to be one of rock’s most potent rhythm sections, providing the perfect backdrop for Kim Thayil’s low-tuned guitar exploits. This album shows a new level of maturity and diversity that’s evident in tight, turbo charged rockers such as “Kickstand” and “Let Me Drown,” which contrast with methodical, sinister compositions such as “Mailman,” “4th of July,” and “Like Suicide.” Soundgarden broke into the Top 40 with the bludgeoning “Spoonman” (a great song despite its cheesy megaphone spoken word vocals) and the massive hit single “Black Hole Sun,” a darkly psychedelic power ballad that finally made the band stars. Considered their best song by many, I actually find this overly repetitive song to be a bit overrated, though its tightly coiled intensity, cool multi-tracked vocals, and wailing guitars in the background are easy enough to admire. Still, I prefer album tracks such as album opener “Let Me Drown,” with its churning riffs and blistering chorus, "Head Down," which hauntingly rises from a whisper to a scream without ever losing its riveting intensity, “Mailman,” whose slow, intense crawl is devastatingly heavy (to me this song is almost a parallel track to the last album’s “Slaves & Bulldozers”), "Limo Wreck," which contains vocal acrobatics galore, “Fresh Tendrils,” another cool deep cut with a great rhythm and a nice bounce to it, “4th Of July,” easily among the band’s most oppressively dark and atmospheric songs, and "Like Suicide," a slow building epic with inventive tribal beats and a great jam ending. Other well-known highlights that saw some radio time include “Fell On Black Days,” which features a deliciously dark riff and a beautifully controlled vocal, “My Wave,” whose heavy psychedelic pop was catchy yet crunchy, the sleekly powerful and catchy title track, and the awesomely anthemic “The Day I Tried To Live.” These songs all demonstrated the bands newfound restraint and Cornell’s more varied vocal delivery, though it's his ear piercing epiphanies that remain most riveting. Alas, as with most '90s albums this 70-minute effort is a little too long for its own good, but this is most definitely a minor quibble about an album that became an instant hard rock classic, as you can almost feel the band's increased confidence throughout. And though I'd argue that its predecessor's peaks arguably rose even higher, Superunknown was easily Soundgarden's most consistently excellent album to date, and as such it's remembered as the band’s creative and commercial peak.

Down On The Upside (A&M ‘96) Rating: A-
This was released when grunge was losing its popularity, but this “commercial disappointment” still went platinum several times over. Although this album is cleaner and less heavy on the whole than previous efforts, lyrics such as “only happy when you hurt” (from the standout album track “Rhinosaur”) show that the band hasn’t softened up too much. In fact, songs such as the lead single “Pretty Noose,” with its swirling guitar lines and monster drum fills, are as intense as anything the band has ever done. Elsewhere, Zeppelin-esque highlights both minor (“Zero Chance,” “Dusty”) and major (“Burden In My Hand,” the album’s signature song and arguably the band’s best song ever) are heavily reliant on Eastern-tinged atmospherics, while “Blow Up The Outside World” starts with a mellow, trippy Beatles-esque melody before exploding into the splendor of its huge chorus. Actually, the first half of the album is mostly excellent, presenting a more accessible Soundgarden that still rocked plenty hard. On the whole, the album doesn't quite have the diversity of Superunknown, however, and it has much more filler, as the second half gets bogged down by a few too many unmemorable tracks. I wouldn’t miss "Never Named," "No Attention," or “An Unkind,” the albums punkiest songs along with the first side's far superior "Ty Cobb,", and though the playing and singing on the hard rocking "Never The Machine Forever" is very impressive, the songwriting is only so-so, while "Applebite" is a simple yet strangely alluring (mostly) instrumental that’s hypnotic but over-long. Better is more melodic fare such as “Switch Opens" and "Boot Camp," while intense multi-sectioned epics such as “Tighter & Tighter” (probably the best song on the second half of the album) and “Overfloater” also attest to the band’s undiminished ambition and ability. On the downside, this mellower, less edgy album underutilizes their greatest asset by not unleashing Cornell more, but hey he’s still great and there's till enough first-rate stuff here that had the band left the lesser songs on the cutting room floor, they could’ve had another classic on their hands. As it is, this turned out to be merely a very good goodbye, as Soundgarden broke up soon after this albums release. As luck would have it, I was scheduled to see Soundgarden in 1996 but the band cancelled the show due to Cornell's alleged throat problems. Needless to say, after the band's breakup a rescheduling was not in the offering, and to this day I lament having narrowly missed out on seeing one of the '90s best bands. Having emerged from the first wave of grunge to stand tall amid other great Seattle heavyweights such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, Soundgarden is sorely missed.

King Animal (Seven Four Entertainment ‘12) Rating: A-
Let's be honest, aside from Matt Cameron stabilizing the drum position in Pearl Jam (and I still think he fits Soundgarden better), the members of Soundgarden haven't overly distinguished themselves musically since the band's seemingly premature breakup after Down On The Upside. Kim Thayil and Ben Shepard basically disappeared, and Chris Cornell released a couple of solo albums that didn't make much of an impact (plus the dreadful Timbaaland collaboration Scream, perhaps the most ill-advised and disliked collaboration in recent years aside perhaps from Lou Reed and Metallica) while also releasing three albums with former Rage Against The Machine members as Audioslave, who he fronted from 2001-2007. And while said "supergroup" may have been a good idea on paper, after all Cornell is about 10,000x the singer Zack de la Rocha is, band chemistry is a funny thing, and though Audioslave had their fair share of success (the debut in particular sold several million and had popular hits in "Cochise" and "Like A Stone"), overall they're widely viewed as a disappointment (I think most were surprised it wasn't a one-off and that they actually stuck around for three albums) who in the grand scheme of things failed to measure up to either Rage Against The Machine (who I'm not a big fan of) and Soundgarden (who I obviously am a big fan of). Which brings us to the inevitable reunions of both of those bands, the focus from here on in being on Soundgarden's reformation and subsequent release of King Animal which, like recent "comeback albums" from the likes of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots, is better than anybody had any reason to expect it to be (or at least it's better than I expected it to be given the long layoff). "Been Away Too Long" kicks off the album and immediately makes me think "damn right!," and though it's a bit Soundgarden by numbers it's still a solid, hard-hitting opener that lets listeners know that the band was back and ready to rock. The heart of this album is tracks 2-6, however, which forms a sequence that's classic Soundgarden, simple as that. When Cornell screams towards the beginning of "Non-State Actor" it's a "wow" moment that reminded me how great Cornell was and apparently still is, and how few wow moments he'd given me since leaving Soundgarden. Well, that terrific song certainly aims to make up for lost time, and "By Crooked Steps," whose huge riffs and beats hit like a jackhammer, is another winner even if its vocals are a bit strange at times, while "A Thousand Days Before," with its swirling Zeppelin-y psychedelic sound, may be my favorite song here, in particular its "I'll be on my own side" climax where Cornell is again spectacular. "Blood On the Valley Floor" is also quite good and heavy, reminding me that Sabbath was always a huge influence on Soundgarden in addition to Zeppelin, while "Bones of Birds" shows that the band can still do powerful ballads. As with their prior album, Down On The Upside, I'd say that side two is much less impressive than side one, but there's little if any of what I'd consider to be outright filler, and the band's playing is extremely impressive throughout, in particular guitarist Kim Thayil who may not have done much recording in the past 16 years but who obviously kept his chops intact. Cornell's vocals are again the highlight of "Taree," "Attrition," is a fast-paced, fun, punkish number, "Black Saturday" and "Halfway There" see the band breaking out their acoustic guitars, the former more atmospheric, the latter poppier, "Worse Dreams" rocks hard and has really good guitar playing particularly on the back end, "Eyelid's Mouth" is arguably the best song on the album's second half and features the band's expert use of soft/loud and/or light/shade dynamics along with more really good guitar playing, and "Rowing" ends the album with an interestingly atypical effort that's almost Beck-like at times. So, pretty much every song here is worth hearing, and though the album doesn't consistently scale the heights of prior classics Badmotorfinger or Superunknown, I think it's worthy of comparison to any of their other albums, which is a great achievement for a band whose profile aside from a few overplayed songs (“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” and “Burden In My Hand,” primarily) had really decreased in recent years. Perhaps that's part of why Soundgarden decided to give it another go, but whatever the reason, on King Animal Soundgarden are back in a big way.

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