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Album Of The Week Club: Soundgarden - Superunknown

Soundgarden may have been a little slower to hit the mainstream than Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but Superunknown catapulted them into the big time

While 1991’s Badmotorfinger might have set the stage, Superunknown tipped it up and burnt it down in spectacular fashion. Spurred on by a series of imaginative videos that found the band peaking just as MTV did, it went on to sell millions of copies worldwide, cementing the band as one of the forces of 90s rock.

It was released exactly a week after Nirvana played their final ever show in Munich, Germany.

“We wanted to show that we stood alone and outside of what was becoming a convenient geographic group that we were inside,” Chris Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I never felt bad about being lumped in with other Seattle bands. I thought it was great. But I also felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy, and we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and we deserved to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the ‘British invasion’ or a ‘New York noise scene.’

Superunknown was that for me. It was showing what we were not just a flavor of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment, and I think we really did.”

Listen to Superunknown:

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. Join the group here.

Here’s what we learned about Superunknown

Background

“Musically we were ready to try on a lot of new clothes, in a sense,” Chris Cornell told Classic Rock in 2014. “Although we had only been known internationally for a couple of years, we had been a band for quite a long time by that point. So we needed to express ourselves differently… And for me personally, I finally had the tools to take the music I heard in my head and express it in the way that I really wanted to.”

They succeeded. Across 16 sprawling tracks, Superunknown – even now, more than two decades later – is an album that stands spits with turmoil, trouble and spite. “I like that some people don’t like us,” said bassist Ben Shepherd. “I like that we’re smarter than them and that we’re darker than them.”

Other albums released in March 1994:

  • Beck - Mellow Gold
  • Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral
  • Cheap Trick - Woke Up With A Monster
  • Insane Clown Posse - Ringmaster
  • David Lee Roth - Your Filthy Little Mouth
  • Motley Crue - Motley Crue
  • Pantera - Far Beyond Driven
  • Phish - Hoist
  • Pink Floyd - The Division Bell

What they said

On the whole, though, Superunknown not only hits more often than it misses, but it demonstrates far greater range than many bands manage in an entire career. And while that probably won’t be enough to place Soundgarden at the forefront of the alternative-rock scene, it ought to at least lift the band out of the metal ghetto to which it had been so unfairly consigned (Rolling Stone)

With its fourth album, Soundgarden doesn’t mind sounding like a Led Zeppelin tribute sometimes. Cornell, the band’s singer and main songwriter, shouts and wails like Robert Plant with an expanded lower register. And Kim Thayil bends and stretches Jimmy Page-style guitar riffs, adding Soundgarden’s distinctive strategy: odd meters that make the songs heave with unexpected accents. (New York Times)

Superunknown is the place where American heavy metal meets Northwestern wild man grunt rock, which portends something even more tantalizing. It may be the first record to slam together two disparate fan groups — working-class metalheads and too-hip-to-be-happy alternative fans — and give them a stomping ground they can both call home. Personally, I’m crossing my fingers. (Entertainment Weekly)

Having mocked this group’s conceptual pretensions for years, I’d best point out that Chris Cornell still isn’t Robert Plant, Kim Thayill still isn’t Jimmy Page, and so forth, before cheerfully acknowledging that 1) they’re all closer than they used to be and 2) it no longer matters. This is easily the best–the most galvanizing, kinetic, sensational, catchy–Zep rip in history… At 70 minutes, it’s what used to be called a double album, not quite as long as Physical Graffiti but a lot more consistent. (Robert Christgau)

What you said

Brian Carr: I think maybe Soundgarden is one of those artists I respect more than I like. Maybe 15 songs of dark, sometimes sludgy riffs is too much at one time for me. Or maybe I got spoiled with albums that I actually liked all the way through and Superunknown is not one of those for me. To my ears, it’s probably 6.5 out of a 10 scale.

Marcio Reyero: One of the first CDs I ever bought, back when It was originally released. Alternative rock making It to the mainstream never sounded better. It was also my introduction to the magic of Cornell’s voice, amazing album.

Ben L. Connor: One of the greatest hard rock albums of all time, let alone the 90s. It has the minor-key doom of metal, the abstract lyrical heaviness of grunge, the energy of classic rock, and the sonic weirdness of post-punk.

Chris Mitakos: Definitely an era defining album and one of the best of that decade. It was the band’s breakthrough to the mainstream. Hats off to Chris, Kim, Ben and Matt. God bless Seattle!

Richard Cardenas: I don’t know that I could properly rate this record. Because of tinitis, grunge music does not resonate well with me. I’ve never really liked most of this music. Badmotorfinger is a different story all together.

Kaine Smith: Cornell’s vocals and lyrics bring some of my favourite songs such as The Day I Tried To Live and Fell On Black Days. Kim Thayil is just cool as, I guess that subconsciously it was his fault that the Gibson Firebird is my favourite guitar, and their bizarre choice of tunings and experimentation further pushes me to expand my musical boundaries. And the time signatures, well, oh wow.

Iain Macaulay: Oh yeah, here we go! Most definitely a classic. Big riffs, imaginative arrangements and odd time signatures. A musicians album for sure but with enough hit singles to satisfy both the boys ‘and’ girls of the MTV generation, and explode the band into mass popularity. Yes, it’s a tad long, (a drawback of 90’s bands thinking they had to fill up all the time available on a CD) a bit of quantity control could have been put in action, and some of the lyrics are indecipherable, but the playing and songwriting are undeniably phenomenal. There is enough within its fifteen tracks to satisfy a broad section of rock fans from Zeppelin to Sabbath to Siouxsie and the Banshees (trust me) and a myriad of points in-between. Superunknown and The Day I Tried To Live are particular favourites. Nice one.

Stuart Magnus: I got this from one of those record clubs where u got 5 for a few £ but had to buy so many over the year. This was a record of the month that I forgot to cancel so they sent me it and I had to pay for it. I’d never heard them but knew the name. So glad I fucked up and had to buy it! The Day I Tried To Live is such an amazing track. RIP Chris Cornell. One of the truly great singers.

James Utvandraren: Oh, sweet nemesis, we meet again. You effectively killed off all the rest of the bands I liked, that Nirvana hadn’t already euthanized a couple of years earlier, and you replaced them with your dark muck. You made chicks uglier, and you stripped the neon colors off guitars everywhere. Before you, it was party central, night and day; after you, it was the musical apocalypse of dread.

Are you still my enemy, dearest Soundgarden, or have my taste buds matured? Is 25 years of water under the bridge enough? We will see. I will give you the full week and an honest shot. Don’t hold your scummy breath, though. I do hate you, you know.

[cut to a week later]

For such a bunch of extremely accomplished musicians, I just don’t get how they managed to conceive such a monotone, drab piece of music – unless that was, of course, what they were going for. As such, it is fantastically well executed, and I literally feel like fucking killing myself right now. I realize that I am in the minority about this, and that most of you guys are probably right, and I am just not getting it, but I have never been so depressed in my whole life. Three days of this has taken its toll. I need to cleanse.

I’m going to go squeeze into my PVC pants, don my ESP guitar and play Shotgun Messiah covers in front of the mirror until my wife yells at me to knock it the hell off.

Farewell, Old Enemy. We shall never meet again.

Kev Moore: There was a time somewhere in the 90’s when I though, “shit, I have no clue what’s happening with rock right now. Everything I love seems to be passe,” so I went out and bought an Alice in Chains album (Dirt) and this. It was a hard listen in the first instance to this classic rocker’s ears, but it drew me in. It showed me that some of these kids actually knew what they were doing. It’s a hugely important album, and today, I’m going to listen to it again

Chune Wan-Kenobi: As a 90s teen, I could never understand what glam was all about. I thought they all looked the same, sounded the same and offered nothing to identify with (those rejection feelings towards the scene are gone now). It wasn’t grunge that killed glam, glam killed itself with the help of bands like Jane’s Addiction, Queensryche, Faith No More, Living Colour, etc. I discovered Soundgarden on a magazine ad for Badmotorfinger. Been a huge fan since. I don’t have fancy album reviews or have “the best words” but the genre stuck a cord with my teen self, and maybe the vast range of sounds that came with the 90s kept it interesting, from Pantera to Weezer, each album a masterpiece.

Gary Claydon: Forget genres and endless sub-genres, Superunknown is, quite simply, a great rock album. This was Soundgarden’s high point. The band were always regarded as being the most ‘metal’ of the main grunge bands and the influence of such as Led Zeppelin and, in particular, Black Sabbath, are clear. This was a different beast to the excellent Badmotorfinger. More melodic, more experimental, the band displaying a broader palette.

Mike Knoop: Honestly, this week is the first time I have listened to Superunknown all the way through. By 1994, I had moved on from Soundgarden and grunge in general and into the wider Alternative Nation of Afghan Whigs, Smashing Pumpkins, Mazzy Star, Hole etc. After three listens from start to finish, I would say it’s a good but not great. For me, it’s missing the sonic punch of Louder Than Love or the audio insanity of Ultramega OK.

Olav Martin Bjørnsen: Superunknown comes across as a vital album even now, almost 25 years later. It is a dark album, to the point of creating an oppressive atmosphere, but few have managed to create dystopian atmospheres in music as compelling and as alluring as Soundgarden did here. If you like your hard rock, enjoy landscapes of a dark and depressive orientation, and don’t mind tripping a bit out while visiting dystopia central, then Superunknown is an album well worth revisiting. Grunge at its arguably most sophisticated peak, and for me at least an album reflecting the spirit of the time it was made very well indeed too.

Final Score: 7.8410 (242 votes cast, with a total score of 1899)

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