I once caught a few of my college friends off guard by insisting that Soundgarden‘s Chris Cornell had the best wail in rock music. And I wasn’t wrong. At the time bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes and The Hives were vying for a revivalist crown and Audioslave might not have been doing my case any favors, but there are few vocal moments in the past 20 years in rock music that have the same kind of visceral impact as when Cornell screeches his way toward the highest notes in “Jesus Christ Pose.” He didn’t mumble like Eddie Vedder, or growl like King Buzzo, or sneer like Mark Arm, or mumble and scream like Kurt Cobain. He wailed.
When Soundgarden released their third album Badmotorfinger in October of 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind was still three months away from climbing to the top spot of the Billboard album chart, thereby making “grunge” a household phrase. But without that context—without having “alternative” as a structure in which to frame the music that Soundgarden made—Badmotorfinger, on first listen, sounds a lot like heavy metal.
The video for “Outshined,” one of the album’s standout singles, does nothing to dissuade that notion; a long-maned Cornell is shirtless, climbing on heavy chains in what appears to be a steel mill—for some reason. Kim Thayil’s guitar riffs are dirty, nasty and low, and Matt Cameron spends as much time clanging the bell of his ride cymbal as he does with kick drum or snare. There’s no particular mystery why the video aired on MTV’s Headbangers Ball alongside Anthrax and Metallica videos (and, let’s not forget, Nirvana)—it kicks ass. As if to drive home the point that Soundgarden—much like their peers and neighbors in Alice in Chains—seemed to simultaneously exist in two worlds, while touring behind the album, did a leg opening for Guns ‘N’ Roses on their Use Your Illusion tour.
Soundgarden didn’t spring, fully formed from the head of Tony Iommi with Valhallan riffs in tow, however. The group’s early records such as Screaming Life and Ultramega OK were a bit more raw and murky, still taking influence from heavy metal and psychedelic rock but performed with a punk rock immediacy that still felt leagues apart from mainstream metal or hard rock. Badmotorfinger brought a level of focus and precision to their sound that immediately set it apart from both their prior albums and those of other heavier bands at the time. Even among their supposed peers, there’s nothing that sounds quiet like the squealing riffs of “Jesus Christ Pose,” the psychedelic doom trip of “Slaves and Bulldozers,” or the rhythmic sprint of “Rusty Cage”—a song iconic that proved enough for Johnny Cash to cover it five years later on Unchained.
Badmotorfinger also marked the band’s first album with bassist Ben Shepherd, the group’s third bassist following Hiro Yamamoto and Jason Everman. The band largely credits Shepherd for helping push them musically, inspiring some of the more experimental choices on the record such as adding horns to songs like “Face Pollution” and “Room A Thousand Years Wide.” And collectively, the band drew influences from some fairly unexpected places that came out in less obvious ways on the album. “We really liked Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu and all these post-punk or nontraditional rock elements in these bands,” Cameron said in an interview with Seattle Times.
In many ways, Badmotorfinger is a strange album in the context of the times—any record that brought the thunder of heavy metal into the world of indie and college rock in an age where the two simply didn’t mix would be. (At least until we began to call it “alternative metal.”) But it’s not an anti-commercial record by any means. It’s an album in which Soundgarden simply provided more of everything—more stylistic experimentation, more moments of sonic bombast, and naturally bigger hooks as well. Beneath the veneer of grunge aggression, there are pop songs in “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined”—gloriously catchy ones. And not to belabor the point, but Johnny Cash doesn’t cover your song if there’s no soul beneath the intricate strata of instrumental flash.
It’s not surprising, then, that the album ended up being Soundgarden’s most successful at that stage in their career, selling a million copies in just a little over one year’s time. Which led to an unexpectedly hilarious exchange in 1993 when Matt Cameron attempted to buy a Kill Rock Stars t-shirt at a music festival, and the vendor refused on the grounds that Cameron was a rock star. Though nothing about the band, other than their ambition, necessarily reflected that. While much of Cornell’s lyrical content on the album is oblique and symbolic, the moments in which he allows everything to come into focus tend to reveal either a sense of humility or a disdain for self-importance. “Outshined,” for all its raw power, is really an expression of self-doubt (“I can’t get any lower, but still I feel I’m sinking“). And “Jesus Christ Pose,” whose video pulled from MTV after a controversy surrounding its supposed blasphemous imagery, when it’s really about the false idolization of celebrity (“Would it pain you more to walk on water than to wear a crown of thorns/It wouldn’t pain me more to bury you rich/than to bury you poor“).
Some of Badmotorfinger‘s success can be attributed to grunge’s rising tide in the early ’90s, its release arriving shortly after that of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. But in hindsight, it feels unique, less a product of a scene or a movement than a set of musicians that sought to find new growth in rock music’s fallow field. Badmotorfinger is one the greatest metal albums ever marketed as “alternative” and vice versa.
Long may it wail.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.