Unplugging Chris Cornell and the Ghost of Grunge
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 or hippies? They kind of looked like both. And the music kind of sounded like both too.
Grunge -- both the dirge-y guitar tunes and the 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 riffage and girth), Chris Cornell and Soundgarden 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 noise. But unlike Nirvana's neanderthalish debut LP, Soundgarden's early -- Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love -- alluded to a aesthetic variant that was simultaneously raw and impressively technical.
Guitarist Kim Thayil paved the way for the sonorous, rich, chunky, droning, buzzing tone that would become the genre's flagship and the archetype for radio rock riffage well into the mid 2000s.
But it was Chris Cornell who was challenged with the most daunting amalgamation of the grunge era, merging the heroically sexy rock frontman with the nihilistic sexy punk antihero.
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 Batmotorfinger -- 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.
However, Superunknown would be the record to finally catapult Cornell, Thayil, and company onto pop culture's main stage. The record's 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 last 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 solo records with hip-hop producers, like disastrous 2009 misstep Scream.
While we have yet to see him return to the variety that made Soundgarden so excellent, his upcoming acoustic performance at the Fillmore Miami Beach promises, at least, to be another worthy experiment in pairing the seemingly opposed styles that, when finally united, equal grunge.
Chris Cornell in a unique acoustic performance. Sunday, November 6. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and tickets cost $37.50 plus fees via livenation.com. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.
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