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(Credit: Charles Peterson)

Music

30 years on from Soundgarden's experimental masterpiece 'Badmotorfinger'

1991 was an incredible year for music. There can be no denying it. The amount of game-changing and iconic albums that were released within its 12 months is nothing short of dizzying. NevermindBlue LinesScreamadelicaThe Low End Theory, the list is endless. Even Metallica’s controversial ‘Black Album’ was released that year.

Seemingly the year that the future broke off from the past, 1991 moved us into the next musical epoch. The musical standards that were re-written and established that year are still seen today across all of music’s different genres.

There was one album, amongst all the grunge, dance and everything in between that was also released that year, on October 8, which is also hailed as a classic, but often gets overlooked in favour of the zeitgeist shifting Nevermind.

The album in question is, of course, Badmotorfinger, the third album by Seattle grunge legends, Soundgarden. The record saw the introduction of the band’s secret weapon, their new bassist Ben Shepherd, who had joined to replace the outgoing Hiro Yamamoto. 

The introduction of Shepherd announced to the world that Soundgarden had truly arrived as a force of nature. Retrospectively, the band’s late frontman, Chris Cornell said that Shepherd brought a “fresh and creative” approach to the writing and recording sessions and, as a unit, the band have said that his knowledge of music and skill as a writer helped to redefine the group.

With a newfound concentration on the art of songwriting, Soundgarden created an album that shocked fans and critics alike, but in the best way possible. A hit critically and commercially, it found that sweet spot between niche and the mainstream.

This is interesting as the band chose to work with producer Terry Date who they had worked with on their previous release, 1989’s straight-up metal record Louder Than Love. However, the band felt they had a healthy relationship with Date, and didn’t want to risk the time finding a new producer who they potentially wouldn’t connect with. 

This also proved to be a wise move. Intensely cerebral and arty, one would argue that this record pushed grunge to its furthest. Using a wider variety of time signatures, tunings and instrumentation than any of their other Seattle peers, Soundgarden created a body of work that still throws up many surprises today. At the time, guitarist Kim Thayill jokingly labelled the album the “heavy metal White Album“, and he was right.

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In the wake of its release, Cornell also gave his opinion on the character of the record: “I think there’s songs on the new record which are almost more commercially viable because they have that memorable feel to them, and I think if anyone expected us to come out and make something more commercial than Louder Than Love, then I’m glad that they were surprised.”

Encompassing grunge, metal and hard rock, the band also encroached into the experimental with their use of trumpets, saxophones and narration. Much more musically than a straightforward metal album and more complex dynamically than a grunge record, the album perfectly bridged the gaps between all the best elements of the era’s best heavy music. 

Hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time by their Seattle friend and frontman of Melvins, Buzz Osborne, Badmotorfinger doesn’t really have a downside. You might add that Cornell’s lyrics at times can be a tad questionable with all his discussion of “paradigms” and “Jesus Christ pose(s)”, but we have to remember that the record came out thirty years ago, and this was more acceptable then.

The opener, ‘Rusty Cage’ is a classic. Heavy and sludgy, on the track, Cornell proved that he really was something of Generation X’s answer to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, theatrical and howling at the wind, his vocal range was truly remarkable. Also the “backwards” feel that Thayill’s guitar line gives the song by cocking his wah-pedal was a stroke of brilliance.

The meaty guitar moves of Thayill, Cornell and Shepherd are one of the album’s best facets, and nearly every track features their unique, hulking riffs, and they dovetail in a way that no other grunge band did. They took the sludge of Melvins and the darkness of Alice in Chains and moved them in a more artistic direction, as the melodic chorus of ‘Outshined’ shows. 

We could spend all day discussing at length every highlight of Badmotorfinger, from the subtle politics of ‘New Damage’, the dynamic brilliance of ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ or the haunting ‘Slaves & Bulldozers’, but we feel the need to mention what we feel is the album’s highpoint, and one of alternative rock’s most underrated gems.

Track eight, ‘Room a Thousand Years Wide’, is an atmospheric masterpiece. The offbeat guitar riff, the gothic, reverb-drenched production, or Thayill’s droning guitar line in the verse, make it stand out amongst the album’s 12 tracks. As it wasn’t a single, and that the album was somewhat overlooked, this track has widely been forgotten, which is a travesty because its brilliant. Not widely known outside of the Soundgarden fandom, the song is a grower, and it has everything.

Sludgy as hell riffing, Cornell’s signature melisma, a drone that almost makes it a piece of shoegaze, and the wailing saxophone at the end, makes it sound more like a record that Creation would have put out at the time rather than A&M. The last 30 seconds literally sound like a cut from Swervedriver’s Mezcal Head, rather than a Soundgarden offering. The song slowly builds up to a visceral crescendo, and it’s always worth a revisit.

Given that the current era seems to be one of musical revisionism, we think it’s about time that Badmotorfinger gets given more praise. Obviously, it’s hailed as a modern classic, but it gets overlooked in favour of the likes of Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nevermind. 

Nevermind is unmatched and that is a fact. However, the true injustice is that the likes of Ten are often held in higher regard because, ultimately, Badmotorfinger trumps it in every department. One would even go as far as saying that Badmotorfinger was one of the most interesting rock records put out in 1991.

Psychedelic, metal, pop and experimental, it tied together disparate elements that many have tried and failed to do, marking Soundgarden out as one of the most interesting and electrifying bands of the era. This was only the beginning, as the likes of ‘Black Hole Sun’ and ‘Fell On Black Days’ were yet to come.

Listen to Badmotorfinger in full below.

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