Soundgarden were one the best bands to emerge from the Legendary Seattle scene in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Their history is as much a part of Grunge folklore as the most famous bands of that era. Being made up of the remnants of The Shemps and Temple of the Dog, at first the band belonged to mythic underground record label Sub Pop (who have recently had a renaissance with bands like Flight of the Conchords and Fleet Foxes) and enjoying a cult following as a punk rock outfit. But after signing to A&M Records and touring with Guns & Roses they adopted a bluesy, heavy metal style with hints at psychedelia that sounded like the Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin tour buses crashing into each other.
It was this change of gear that cemented Soundgarden’s destiny as Riffmaster generals, as dirty, distortion hungry rock gods. After a few successful albums they hit a massive mainstream success with the 1994’s Superunknown (to this day in my own personal top 5). The success of the album was mostly due to a song called “Black Hole Sun” and it’s incredible, ground-breaking video, which remains one of the most requested in MTV’s history (especially since now the original channel doesn’t even play music, in fact it’s no longer even categorised as music in Sky’s TV listings any more).
The band broke up in 1997 blaming the intensity of the touring schedule and conflict over the bands direction after the “Down on the Upside” album. They became of the most anticipated bands to get back together after Rage Against the Machine, and in 2010 they did so, headlining Lollapalooza.
This album however is taken from their North American Tour of 1996, the tour on which it all started to go wrong for one of the best bands of the 90’s.
So, does this album reflect a band being stretched to breaking point, or does this capture the spirit of one of the most musically gifted groups to come out of one of the most musically gifted scenes in rock history? Lets find out.
Firstly, it does the best thing a live album can possibly do, it records not just the music but the essence of the band performing at their best, each song seamlessly transitioning from one great track to another, never losing momentum, never dropping the pace. A tough feat for an album that takes it’s play list from multiple concerts.
The production of the album is amazing, the sound resonates all around you and the fact that it never forsakes the noise of crowd means you are constantly immersed. By the end you feel like you’ve just emerged from the middle of the mosh pit. From the moment the first few chords of the first song (Spoonman) break the tension of the first few tuneless seconds, from the moment the drums are beaten to create that famously infectious groove your mind is immediately transported to a state of hard rock bliss. You can practically see the band take to the stage and make it their own.
Speaking of the band they are on spectacular form. The song sheet takes particular care to showcase Chris Cornell’s extensive range. One minute its a sweet serenade of pure soul, the next minute it’s stretched to the point of implosion. Matt Cameron beats the drums to within an inch of their life and Ben Shepard’s bass stalks the audience like a cobra among the reeds. But this is Kim Thayil’s show. It’s hard to know just how successful this band would be without his guitar growling like an angry dog protecting his territory. From the racing riff of Rusty Cage, to the rhythm of Jesus Christ Pose, it’s his licks that hold this band together, the main ingredient without which the rest would make little sense.
The dark heart of this band is also on show in this album. In particular there is a dark and twisted version of The Beatles Helter Skelter which sounds like the original being played backwards on Satan’s stereo speaker. There is also an extended version of Slaves and Bulldozers that is particularly sleazy and sinister.
This album has all of the blood, sweat and tears that are the hall mark of the best Soundgarden gigs. After listening to it in it’s entirety (the only way to listen to it in my opinion) you feel exhausted as if this album has drained you physically and emotionally. You feel like you have just been a part of something, like you have just been a participant in a surge of humanity all connected to the same muisical vibe. So if want an answer to the question above, it’s the second one.