Classic Album Review: Soundgarden – Down on the Upside
Origin: Seattle, US
Release year: 1996
Label: A&M Records
If there’s one band that has been shaping my musical taste through the years that I’ve been actively listening to music, it’s Soundgarden.
The Seattle-based band started out in 1984, but didn’t see much success until the early nineties, when Grunge gained its position as a popular Rock subgenre. People tend to refer to their third and fourth albums when they speak about the band and praise their work. Badmotorfinger and Superunknown are indeed great records, but actually there’s another album which I think is even better, and which is the one that got me into the band. It’s the last album the band put out; Down on the Upside from 1996.
It wasn’t quite so successful in terms of sales as Superunknown, which had Black Hole Sun as a huge selling point, but it still did pretty good. And one of the copies they sold went to my dad, who was looking for ”the album that had Black Hole Sun on it”, but didn’t pay a lot attention in the record store. He didn’t play it much, but I did! Rediscovering it the other day I found out that I still dig the living shit out of this thing! Figured I’d write down why.
Thinking back of all the Rock, Punk, Alternative and commercial Metal I listened to in my early music-listening days, I don’t think there is any other album that actually has that effect; making me feel like I’m coming home, sounding like it’s only been an hour since the last time I heard it, but without thinking “hmm, this isn’t so special really, why the hell did I even listen to this?”. Quite the contrary.
Down on the Upside is different from its predecessors in that it isn’t quite as ‘heavy’, a relative notion when you’re used to Death Metal, but still. The riffs as the driving force is replaced by a bigger role for melodies and vocals and the originality of the whole album is just incredible. Not for the time it was released, it still is!
As an album, Down on the Upside features sixteen songs and well over an hour of tunes; this thing is from the time when an album was still an album. Both in terms of duration and as a collection of songs that have a collective musical point to make without losing identity. The sixteen songs each have their own ‘look and feel’, but share unity in terms of ‘sound color’ and the glue that is the voice of Chris Cornell.
Pretty Noose starts off as a scene setting mid-tempo Rock song, with a very prominent role for an almost crying lead guitar in the intro. The versus feature some deliciously greasy – enforced by the C-G-C-G-G-E guitar tuning used – ‘slide riffs’ and a bass that uses the gaps left by the guitars to pop up and do some funky fills. The guitar solo is of the type that makes peoples’ mouths go O-shaped as they play the air guitar; big full Wah and lot’s of tasty bends. But the best part, probably, is the rhythm and tempo. Feels like it’s about to stagger at any moment, almost as if it’s tired and longing for the pretty noose at the end of its path.
Focusing on the album’s strong points, let me skip to track 5, titled Ty Cobb. A quiet mandolin and bass intro leads up to the rest of the song going completely mental. I’ve tried playing that song on guitar in the past and though easy at a slow pace, the sheer speed of the actual song makes it completely impossible to play along. Power chords sliding up and down with the pace and seeming randomness of a jackhammer hacking away at a chunk of concrete. The song seems to be about a man not giving a shit about the world and other people, uttered by the words ”hard-headed Fuck you all!” – indeed ‘Fuck’ is sung with a thick capital F! Best thing to scream along ever! The bridge piece subsequently features a scrumptious rolling, chugging groove of bass and low-end guitars. And you HAVE to love the ending. Potentially the album’s highlight and definitely the one I’ve spun the most.
Though the album itself takes a breather first and then goes through a number of heavier and less-heavy songs, the next highlight in my view, No Attention, is another up-tempo song. Very up tempo. Together with Ty Cobb it’s probably the heaviest on the record and I love it for its accentuating drumming, Wah-wah lead guitars and Cornell’s angry screams leading up to the chorus and the bridge. The song’s heaviness is increased by a factor ten in that bridge and subsequent outro, when the tempo is lowered and the chorus riffs that constitute it are heavily enforced.
Overfloater, track number 14, isn’t necessarily heavy, but revels in a thick atmosphere, perhaps with a mild Southern air to it. It takes a little while to come loose, but it need every bit of that lead time to be able to make the break out all the more effective. When it finally does, Cornell’s hoarse, high-pitched screams singlehandedly give the song its rich character.
The last song I’d like to cover is called An Unkind. With just over two minutes it’s a quicky, also in terms of playing speed. It’s a bit funky in the verses, but shifts to a lovely melodic, sing-along chorus. Angry dragon-like screams form some kind of alternative to a guitar solo. It provides a nice final breakout, serving as a contrast with the slow, typical end-song Boot Camp.
I’ve only picked out those songs that I enjoy best, but actually Down on the Upside should be listened to front to back without stopping. Crank up the volume, have a beer and use some goddamn headphones! Each and every single song is an experience in itself, but part of a longer musical journey. Listen to the accents, fillings, creative elements, effects, atmospheres and original compositions. Down on the Upside is a masterpiece to me and twelve years after its release it’s stronger than ever.
Soundgarden is back together since 2010, after twelve year break-up, and will be releasing an all new album later this year. I only hope it can live up to its predecessors!
My Grade: 10/10
Buy this when:
- you haven’t got it yet!