Music history is littered with pivotal moments. Many of those moments are based entirely on a movement that emerges from the appearance of something new finally clearing the horizon and landing right in front of audiences. Whether it’s the onset of jazz, often credited to the birth and maturation of “Dizzy” Gillespie, or the beginnings of the blues born of hymns and field songs in the late 1800s or Blue Cheer being credited with the first distorted guitar sound that ushered in heavy rock genres; have risen as if by accident or divine plan throughout the history of recorded music.
Jazz was one of the first forms of “modern” music that audiences could easily discern the beginnings of different styles or genres whether those were swing, bebop, and later still, Latin. That blues eventually begat “rhythm and blues” which would ultimately beget rock and roll often escapes mention of its own jazz roots. But it’s those subdivisions and the ability to acknowledge them that would help listeners begin to define the sounds that issued forth from juke joints, concert halls, radio stations, all the way up to now when services like Spotify and Bandcamp would be shells of themselves without genrification.
Sometimes splitting the hairs necessary to delineate one form from another is tedious, or worse, downright asinine. At others, it becomes absolutely essential. One such time where it became crucial was in the Winter of 1991-1992 when the American Pacific Northwest, specifically Seattle, WA, had become so encumbered with oddball, whackjob bands with their own idea of what to do with guitars, bass, drums, and vocals (and often other instruments) in what had become the traditional hard rock setup that people had to come up with some way to describe what they were hearing.
“Grunge”: 1. grime; dirt.
2. a style of rock music characterized by a raucous guitar sound and lazy vocal delivery
A simple word that, if we’re being honest, no one really ever loved as a descriptor for a movement of bands that straddled the lines between heavy metal, more traditional hard rock, and the angular punk being cranked out by labels such as SST and Dischord is the label that stuck. That it came from one of the creators of said form (Mark Arm of Mudhoney) made it easier to leave be as the nom de plume for this group of misfit bands who really didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of the sounds they were creating. Little did they know before that winter that they were going to change the world of music turning rock music as we knew it on its proverbial ear.
When we look critically at grunge and the noise that it gave to the world it’s not a stretch to say it was something of a musical polyglot. The influences ranged from rockabilly (Mudhoney) to the doom-laden sounds of Black Sabbath (the Melvins) to the hodgepodge stew of punk (Nirvana) but all of it was unmistakable in its twisted form growing underneath the clouds and rain of the Pacific Northwest… if you’re given to believing all was gray, wet, and cold instead of vibrant, exciting, and chaotic with so much music to try and wrap one’s head around.
“Looking California and Feeling Minnesota”
One band more than the myriad who were also cutting their teeth in Seattle at this time seemed most fluent in the multiple tongues of rock: Soundgarden. Leading up to that pivotal winter the band had reached a modicum of success with well received albums, Ultramega OK (1988) and Louder Than Love (1989), resulting in new fans, some small recognition by MTV, and the respect of their peers necessary to garner more shows and opportunities to showcase their immense yet still developing talent. The barn door was starting to get budged ajar and people from neighboring towns were peeking inside to see what all the fuss was about.
Alice in Chains really began pushing on that door when they released Facelift in August of 1990. With the band and the single (or more importantly the video) for “Man in the Box” serving as the proverbial canary in the coal mine in March of 1991 more people began to take notice of what was happening in Seattle. August would bring the single for Pearl Jam’s “Alive”. Almost exactly one month later, Nirvana dropped Nevermind and the inescapable single/video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Then, once again nearly exactly one month after that, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger but it wasn’t until December that everything well and truly changed for the band.
December 1991 saw the release of the single/video for “Outshined” and it became equally as unavoidable as the three iconic tracks from their brethren in those other Seattle bands. For those who weren’t sold on the band before that song emerged as the next grunge hit, this was their point of entry into the strangely psychedelic and manic heaviness that they had cultivated from their earliest beginnings.
The sound that greeted new listeners on Badmotorfinger was Kim Thayil’s god-level opening riff to “Rusty Cage” which would go on to influence countless musicians. As Ben Weinman of Dillinger Escape Plan notes, fans of the band would often find it impossible to headbang to the song that carried at its heart the kind of gallop that Black Sabbath in their prime (think “Children of the Grave”) inspired so many bands to attempt while simultaneously throwing in some odd time signatures which would become the band’s hallmark. Let’s not forget, this song would also eventually get covered by none other than the Man in Black, Johnny Cash.
The entire early portion of the album is a string of “greatest hits” from the band demonstrating how deftly they could access different styles melding them into their concoction of sludgey metal lifted on high by soulful vocals gone into overdrive with Chris Cornell’s lauded wailing all while being driven along by Matt Cameron’s innovative (at that time) drumming. The mid-tempo blues-sludge alt-rock hit, “Outshined” flows into the band’s megalithic take on doom in “Slaves and Bulldozers” (essentially Mastodon before Mastodon) with its ever building tension culminating in the all out take on the prog freakout in “Jesus Christ Pose”.
“I wish to wish, I dream to dream, I try to try…”
But here is where Soundgarden begin to truly shine. The hugeness of this leading quartet of tracks gives way to a band up to something. They sneak little touches here and there over the remainder of the album that make repeated listenings not only enjoyable but required. What’s most remarkable is the focus here. This is a band locked in which as a phrase gets thrown around an awful lot but here the pocket is so strong for all of the performers that it really lives up to those words. The production work by Terry Date is as close to perfect in capturing as emotive a form of the band as was probably possible at this point in their career (though the remixed 25th anniversary edition is slightly superior due to bringing up the thunder of the low end) .
“Searching With My Good Eye Closed” is one of the great examples of literally everything that Soundgarden was at this point. Every ingredient that went into creating their sound comes through over the track’s sprawling 6:32 playtime. When taken alongside “Room a Thousand Years Wide” and “New Damage” they serve as an essential bridge from Louder Than Love to the rest of the band’s career. The crushing power is there alongside those shrieks and idiosyncratic guitar lines that are ingrained in the band’s DNA.
The band toys with their own sound a bit as well with more melodic offerings. “Somewhere” is a preview of where the band is going in the future and would capably fit on follow-up efforts Superunknown and Down on the Upside with its shimmering guitars, swirling harmonies, and an almost jazzy outro. Where “Mind Riot” is almost Soundgarden going drone, as close to it as they would probably ever get anyway, you have a song like “Holy Water” which tweaks their sludgy prowl adding a swagger that bands like Stone Temple Pilots would later display on Purple. Meanwhile, “Drawing Flies” throws some random horns into the band’s sound over the kind of upbeat groove they had seldom shown in the past.
What all of this adds up to is the rare album that doesn’t have a miss on the entire affair. Thayil’s guitar lines are impeccable, Cameron’s drumming is both modest and innovative in a way that fans of Brann Dailor can appreciate, the addition of Shepherd’s bass playing proves to have been a master-stroke, and then there’s Cornell whose lyrics had become increasingly cryptic yet still managing to connect with his new, wider audience through as close to perfect a performance as one could hope for.
Badmotorfinger, at once as accessible as it was impenetrable, proves to have aged extremely well in its 26 years as it seems like hard rock in some ways finally caught up to what Soundgarden were doing all those years ago. It’s easy to overlook the contributions of the album but its influence since release is remarkable and is set to grow in importance over the ensuing years.