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Monday, May 22, 2017

983. Soundgarden / Badmotorfinger. 1991. 4.5/5

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There are moments in life that can stand out amongst all other memories, that are the ones that are easily remembered when the right question is asked. When I am asked “When did you first hear Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album?” it is an easy answer. It was on the day it was released, which was also my 22nd birthday. A mate of mine bought it that day, and insisted I come over for a beer and to listen to it. I had heard snatches of Soundgarden’s earlier material at that stage, but not a lot. What I heard that day didn’t change my life, but it certainly enhanced it.

How do you describe such an album? I wasn’t sure at the time, but this was when grunge was just beginning to take hold, with albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Alice in Chain’s Facelift also coming out, each with their own interpretation of the Seattle sound. Badmotorfinger wasn’t like those albums. It immediately had that traditional heavy metal element infused into the songs, such that I couldn’t possibly categorise the album as a grunge album. In fact, I couldn’t categorise them in any particular genre, because in many ways this album transcends that (as indeed do all of those albums mentioned). All I knew was that from the opening stanza this album was something special, and I had to get it.
For me, it is the first half of this album that does everything right. It appeals to my musical loves. I never owned this on vinyl, as by this time it was CD that had become the format for my collections, but if I had I reckon I would have worn out the first side of the album such was its pull over me. From the opening strains of “Rusty Cage” to that amazing sound the band squeezes out of “Outshined” as those vocals croon at the brilliant pitch, the two opening songs sound like studio jams with the foursome just hammering away on their instruments while someone records them in a corner. That guitar sound in “Outshined” is just fantastic.
For those that are of a mind to want to categorise this album, it’s not an easy one. Grunge had arrived and Soundgarden certainly infused that sound throughout their music, but this was mixed with the hard arsed metal guitar of Kim Thayil. “Slaves & Bulldozers” may be the perfect example of this. It has that slow tempo throughout that typified much of what grunge was, but listen to that guitar! Not only in the rhythm rumbling along the underlying song with Ben Shepherd’s cool as ice bass and Matt Cameron’s perpetual motion drumming, but also in the solo pieces he gets to add. And then Chris Cornell’s vocals, going from calm and low to the brilliant high energy scream. There is so much of Black Sabbath’s legacy within this song that surely it has to be metal! So, how do you categorise it? In the long run, if you are trying to describe the sound to a potential listener, you just have to say ‘put it on and find out for yourself’
For the metal lovers, “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Face Pollution” are the obvious winners on this album because they just hammer along and drag you into that headbanging action you know so well, and force you to try and sing along at the same pitch that Cornell does. Which is literally impossible, but you have to try, before eventually finding your own range of comfort. As “Slaves & Bulldozers” rolls almost literally into the brilliant “Jesus Christ Pose”, with that fabulous riff over Cameron’s amazing drum performance before Cornell’s vocals just take off, you can only wonder in awe at how this band puts together so many unique sounds in a collection of songs. “Jesus Christ Pose” is that song that every garage band in the world wants to play, but has four instrumental pieces combined here that are practically impossible for amateurs to play and make sound good. Bass, guitar, drums, vocals. No chance on all counts. “Face Pollution” then follows this up at speed with not so much low end guitar but plenty of flailing and energy.
I’m not going to say that this is the best section of any album ever, but while I can find others that may equal this, I cannot say that there is any better ‘first five songs on an album’ ever. So don’t get me wrong when I suggest that the second half of the album mightn’t quite stack up to the first half. I’m not saying is that it isn’t very good. That isn’t true, because the performances and songs on the second half of the album are still awesome. They are different though. They are of a slower tempo generally, and find their way into that alternative medium that is more similar to those other bands they came through the scene with.
“Somewhere” pulls back from the metal heights and finds the middle ground again in more of an alternative sound, clearer guitar. “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” is perhaps the less impactful song on the album for me after the assault of the opening songs. This is brought back into line by “Room a Thousand Years Wide” which has a great underlying riff throughout while Cornell takes control of the song with his driving vocals. “Mind Riot” and “Drawing Flies” both settle back into that comfortable mid-section of the album. The passion of Cornell’s vocals in “Holy Water” drags this from being a good song into being a terrific song. The closing track “New Damage” has that mid-range latter day Sabbath tempo with the band doing their thing while Cornell croons over the top. The sludgy, syrupy guitar, drum and vocals here is the closest indicator to the bands’ genre standing in the community.

25 years after its release, Badmotorfinger remains a hallmark of the period. It managed to draw in those punters who were beginning to take on the newly romanticised genre of grunge while also compelling those punters who were hanging on to 1980’s heavy metal to also love this, and yet it hasn’t dated. It holds true to what it was when it was recorded, and still old fans and new fans alike can put this on in this day and age and find stuff to love. Perhaps it is not for everyone, and future blockbuster albums were perhaps more accessible for the next generation, but this album is perhaps still the one that best holds true to Soundgarden’s roots.

Rating: “Now I’m in the mirror, now it’s getting clear”  4.5/5

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