Soundgarden, one of Seattle's "big four" of the '90s, has long been known for their heavy riffs, complex time signatures, strange tunings, and the banshee-wail of vocalist Chris Cornell. A group that was focused on combining the best elements of metal and punk, with their own local twist, they were not accepted by fans of either genre at first, but they were ahead of their time in the '80s. Since the demise of Led Zeppelin, few rock bands have come along with a sound and musical ability that compares in these areas. Soundgarden comes closer than most to carrying on some of Zeppelin's power and presentation, and there's no better example than their excellent fourth LP, Superunknown, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
At over 70 minutes in length, Superunknown's 15 songs stood out next to contemporary rock albums of the era, most of which were still in the vinyl-friendly length of about 40-50 minutes by comparison. Soundgarden seized their opportunity to explore the limits of that length, and the limits of their songwriting, by getting weird and truly experimenting in the studio for the first time, with successful results. Guitarist Kim Thayil shreds across songs of various tempos such as "Kickstand," "Let Me Drown," and the alt-radio classic, "Black Hole Sun," showing that he does more than super-fast and super-slow, as on previous releases. Drummer Matt Cameron holds steady the awkward time signatures and changes throughout the album, most notably on the great "My Wave," and the hard-rocking "Spoonman," and bassist Ben Sheppard contributed two tracks, including "Head Down," and taking vocal duties as well as writing the strange but short, "Half." The mega-sludgy "4th of July" has one of the heaviest riffs of the grunge era.
For a band who started by blending Zeppelin and Sabbath with Black Flag and various other hardcore and punk groups to then bring in psychedelic and pop elements may not have worked at different points in rock history, but in the early '90's, it was exactly what rock radio was looking for, as evidenced by the success of all five of the singles released from Superunknown. The haunting, "Fell on Black Days" holds up next to anything that rock radio has produced since, and "Spoonman" is nearly as memorable and recognizable as "Black Hole Sun," both thanks, in part, to heavy rotation of their respective music videos on a formerly music-based cable network known as MTV. Even "The Day I Tried to Live," which was not as successful in its video form, was on rock and alternative radio as much as any other hit.
The band lasted only one more album before tensions and creative differences led to a split that lasted nearly 13 years while band members explored other projects and opportunities. In that time, the rock and popular culture landscapes have changed, but this album's influence is still great, and the recent introduction to a new generation of rock listeners via the record's 20th anniversary reissue and tour will inspire new songwriters as much as it reminds the original fans how truly great it was in the first place.
Other albums celebrating 20 years:
Hole-Live Through This