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The Wednesday Sludge

The Wednesday Sludge: Examining SOUNDGARDEN's Superunknown

Posted by on June 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm

Circa 1994

Every week, Nic Huber dissects the heavy riffs of bands — new and old — in The Wednesday Sludge. This week's column returns to remember one of the most iconic albums of the 90's.

There is no denying that Soundgarden is sludgy as fuck.

I guess it is probably hard for any band from Washington not to be influenced by the distortion emitting from Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne's guitar, and the iconic Seattle grunge band was no exception.

Soundgarden's first two EPs, 1987's Screaming Life and 1988's Fopp showcased perfecting its down-tuned riffage as well as Chris Cornell's soaring vocals some several years prior to the term "grunge" becoming a thing.

Released just two months after Fopp, the band's full-length debut, Ultramega OK, displayed signs of the mega success that the band would eventually become. Experimenting with clean guitars and a more poppy sound, Ultramega OK was released on the legendary punk label SST (and later reissued by Sub Pop in 2017).

1991's Badmotorfinger further solidified the band's mastery of the sludge genre, at a time in which it also didn't exist, with songs like "Outshined," "Room A Thousand Years Wide" and "Mind Riot."

The band's fourth album, 1994's timeless classic Superunknown, catapulted Soundgarden to super stardom with the LP's obvious ode to all things Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, all in while continuing to depart from the band's earlier punk influences for a more diverse sound.

It did not take long for Superunknown to become the band's breakthrough album, becoming an overnight critical and commercial success. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200, selling more than 300,000 copies in it's opening week.

The band's biggest singles, "Spoonman" and "Black Hole Sun" diverged from Soundgarden's signature punky sludge but helped the band win two Grammy awards and become a household name, but the band's other singles; "The Day I Tried to Live," "My Wave," and "Fell on Black Days;" helped usher in the emotional presence that never seemed to leave the band thereafter.

In a 1994 interview with Guitar World, founding guitarist Kim Thayil explained, "We looked deep down inside the very core of our souls and there was a little Ringo sitting there. Oh sure, we like telling people it's John Lennon or George Harrison; but when you really look deep inside of Soundgarden, there's a little Ringo wanting to get out."

In a recently republished 1994 SPIN cover story, Sub Pop co-founder Jonathan Poneman said of Superunknown:

“There’s a perspective, a natural integration of ideas in Superunknown that I don’t think the band has really captured since Screaming Life,” Poneman said. “For some reason, Soundgarden has always been seen as the Seattle also-ran, though they are in many ways the defining band of the regional sound."

In that same cover story, Chris Cornell said the album seems destined for stoners which is a weird thing to read in hindsight.

“But Superunknown is a very stoner-friendly record,” says Cornell, “which is funny, because none of us really do drugs. If you listen to it straight, it’s great, but if you get really stoned, it can seem that the whole thing was conceived for that state of mind. I can’t explain why.”

Compared with seminal stoner epics like Sleep's Holy Mountain or Kyuss' Welcome To Sky Valley, Superunknown doesn't feel like a stoner album unless you count the references to getting high in the song "Head Down."

Regardless, Soundgarden's Superunknown has sold more than nine million albums worldwide, certified five-times platinum and is no doubt one of the greatest grunge albums in history. But I'm sure you do not need me to tell you that.

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