What exactly was grunge? We know the early-'90s trend was some kind of rock 'n' roll. But were its adherents just the latest batch of unwashed punks and dirty hippies?
Grunge — the dirge-like guitar tunes and flannel-clad slacker aesthetic — germinated from an incredibly brackish confluence of influences and circumstances. In many ways, the genre signified a neoclassical rock revival that dared to get the Led out and wrap it in the raw innovations of punk and hardcore.
Among the era's big-name bedrocks — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney — nobody embodied the righteous pairing of traditional rock tropes (solos, hooks, and featured frontmen) with the past 20 years of rock deconstruction more than Soundgarden.
Before Nevermind codified what would become the most dominant copycat strain of the genre (essentially poppy punk song structures and melodies with metal's heaviness and girth), Chris Cornell and crew were conducting an experiment in the same spirit as a different, more unwieldy Nirvana album, Bleach.
Both took cues from landmark stoner-metal outfit the Melvins and both featured a whole lot of noise. But unlike Nirvana's brutish debut LP, Soundgarden's early albums — Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love — alluded to an aesthetic variant that was simultaneously raw and impressively technical.
Guitarist Kim Thayil paved the way for the rich, chunky, droning tone that would become the genre's signature and the archetype for radio-rock riffage well into the mid-'00s. But Cornell was challenged with the most daunting amalgamation of the grunge era: merging the heroically sexy rock star with the nihilistically sexy punk antihero.
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No two forces could be more opposed. But Cornell found the middle ground in bombast, and combined Robert Plant's sex shrieks with guttural apocalyptic groans. On 1991's Badmotorfinger — Soundgarden's sleeper classic drowned out at the time by Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten — the band's vocalist sounds positively unhinged, the correct mode considering the practically prog ferocity of the music.
The record to finally catapult Cornell, Thayil, and company onto pop culture's main stage, though, was 1994's Superunknown. The lead single, "Black Hole Sun," is one of the album's most restrained tracks, but it's still an appropriate snapshot of where the sound had gone — a little more polished, a little more psychedelic, a little less heavy, a lot more melodic.
And over the past decade and a half, Cornell has moved on to become a modern-era rock 'n' roll elder statesman, performing with Rage Against the Machine members in supergroup Audioslave and even releasing a solo record — disastrous 2009 misstep Scream — with a team of hip-hop producers.
Though we have yet to see Cornell return to the variety that made Soundgarden so excellent, his unplugged performance at the Fillmore Miami Beach this Sunday promises, at least, to be another worthy experiment in pairing the seemingly opposed styles that, when finally united, equal grunge.