Been Away Too Long

In 1997 after forging a path for the harder-edge of the ‘Seattle sound’ for thirteen years and with a handful of classic tunes and two definitive ‘grunge’ albums to their name, Soundgarden called it a day.

For a while it was a bummer. They released a compilation album at the end of ’97 that seemed like a thoroughly decent wrap-up (complete with the obligatory scrap off the studio floor masquerading as a ‘new’ track). Chris Cornell, having for over a decade been seen towering – he’s a tall chap – over the world of alternative music – released a pretty good solo effort about how shit his life is when messed up by chemicals he should know better than to touch before joining RATM members in Audioslave, delivering another collection of solid tunes then making friends with a Timbaland, making a god awful stab at playing music his voice would be ill-suited to even at its best (it’s been a ravaged shadow of its former glory for some time now), writing a Bond theme and generally becoming a parody. Matt Cameron became the lynchpin that holds the still mighty Pearl Jam together – having taken back the drum stool that he’d filled when the then-untitled group put together the fabled demo that was to reach the ears of Eddie Vedder – and Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd essentially shopped their services around with guest spots and short-lived group efforts.

It’s strange but it seemed like the lack of Soundgarden as an existing band wasn’t a bad thing. I don’t recall a conversation where anyone said ‘damn I wish they were still making music’. To be honest it seemed like they’d fulfilled their purpose and, while it was dramatic at the time, the demise of these forbears wasn’t such a ‘cut down in their prime’ and that it was probably better to have done so than carry on until sales declined and their legacy diminished.

And yet it would seem nobody told them this. For, sure enough, in 2010, Soundgarden ‘regrouped’. Queue reunion concerts, ANOTHER compilation album and even a live album over an eighteen month period. Now a Soundgarden live album sounded like a great idea except that Live on I-5 was recorded from shows on their awful 1996 tour and sounded like a quickly produced, poorly realised and pointless cash-in. Almost as much as the ridiculously named Telephantasm compilation that preceded it. As if to highlight how unlikely and un-required this one was it was shipped out as part of the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock game. Something that revealed what’s really going on here.

Soundgarden were a force to be reckoned with. From Ultramega OK through to Down On The Upside they lead the way. No music lover is without Superunkown and Black Hole Sun still dominates ‘Best of the 90s’ type lists and video run-thrus. However, the importance of Soundgarden and its acknowledgement is one that seems to have escaped the band during its initial lifetime – of course not, in 1997 when they called it a day they were still current. It’s only with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight that people look back on the scene and their role was really noted. So while bands like Pearl Jam are still forging ahead and forward in style and hence never out of the spot-light, Nirvana’s sudden rise and dramatic end ensured their place in the lexicon and yet those same kids that wear the iconic smiley t-shirts weren’t having the importance of Cornell & Co hammered home.

King Animal


Which is what it feels like the recent releases from the Soundgarden camp reek of: We’re important too – LOOK! Here’s another best-of, here’s a live album – we’ve got a new album coming soon and so we’re still relevant. Indeed, how best to grab this new generation of music buying youth’s attention than to get slapped in with the Guitar Hero game? Hell, it worked for Aerosmith right and they’re close to Jurassic in age. And here, I believe, is my problem with it: it feels forced and is being forced onto everyone.

The new album was streamed a few days before it’s release and I had a copy of it on my iTunes shortly after that. It’s not there now. I listened to it. I gave it fair chance. I ignored the ridiculous title and G0d-awful artwork and opened my ears as only someone who’s on their second copy of Badmotorfinger can. Yes, I loved Soundgarden. I was hoping for it to be great and to show that Live On I-5 and Tele.. were just poor record company decisions. I was wrong.

King Animal is dull. It lacks the originality and fire that used to ignite Soundgarden albums. There’s no sense of purpose to this collection of songs other than “look, we’re here still and called Soundgarden” only it’s more “we’re here now and called Soundgarden just like that awesome band in the nineties were; we deserve attention”. Once a song starts you know exactly how it’s going to go, how it will get to the end and that, really, you don’t need to hear it. There is zero surprise. It’s riffs by numbers and Cornell’s bellow is now akin to a lion cub imitating a roar as loud as possible yet without any real balls or feeling behind it.

What’s worse is the amount of build up and media whoring that’s surrounded it. Pearl Jam have been hyping it out – given that Cameron is still a serving member that’s no surprise, emails from music press and label and the band have been bludgeoning my inbox with news and teases of riff-heavy snippets from “the new album by the legendary Soundgarden”. It was already huge and important before anyone had heard a full song! I’m not making this up – people were giving it 5 star reviews on online stores while it was still on pre-order and not a note had been heard – just because it’s Soundgarden. One comment I distinctly remember was “people who hate this are just stuck in 1994.” True, 1994 was a great time for Soundgarden but I also love Down on the Upside and there’s been a whole lot of music released since then that makes me go gooey inside. No, those that don’t like King Animal aren’t stuck in the past – they’re simply those who were hoping for a good album, not a reheat of decade old stodge.

You cannot release an album and have it become amazing just because you say it is. An album should be great by its own merits not just because it’s by a group that defined a genre and happen to have made it. They can’t make an album great just because it’s made by Soundgarden. Had Cornell, Thayil, Shepheard and Cameron spend a year coming up with an album that was fresh, tight, vital and solidly original then that praise would be deserved. Had the album been chock full of the dynamics and variety that earlier work was then yes, hat’s should be off. King Animal is not that album. It’s tired even before the first song ‘Been Away Too Long’ – “oh look! Look what they did there with that song title! YES YES YES you have been away too long”, please – is finished.

The overall feeling from this album is that it’s just another few songs that will be stuck between Rusty Cage and Spoonman while the crowd look for a breather before shouting along to Fell On Black Days on the inevitable huge ‘we’re here still’ tour that follows. King Animal and the reunion surrounding it feels like a case of “we’re Soundgarden, we were important, pay us, we like the idea of acclaim but cash will be fine.”

Sorry but this sits up there with Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania in terms of let downs from the years big releases from big bands. In fact, it’s more of a led down for at least Corgan is writing off the past and trying to do something new rather than simply expecting plaudits for what he did twenty years ago. Let’s be grateful Mark Lanegan isn’t feeling the need to grow his hair long again and give Gerry Lee Connor a call.

This is a bit of a negative post. Feel better, remind yourself of why Soundgarden needed to try harder:

Out Go The Lights

So – for all the grunge, alterna-indie, post-rocking selectivity of music collection there’s a fair few not-so-guilty pleasures. Amongst those is a large selection (yep, every album and a lot of singles) from a band that are oft described as America’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll band – that’s right; Aerosmith.

I’d like to be able to say something like “I only started listening to them because of Buffalo Tom’s referencing them in the linear notes on ‘Asides From'” or “it was the cover of Toys in the Attic that was on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant”  but I can’t. The truth of the matter is, in a similar way to Peter Buck’s statement that “if you grew up in the 70s you like Aerosmith” , if you were watching MTV and taking it all in like a hungry sponge in the 90s there was no way to not know Aerosmith. If you happened to be a 15 year old boy watching Joe Perry blast out a guitar solo on a railroad track then step out the way of a speeding freight-train with that “too cool to give a fuck” attitude in the vid for Livin’ On The Edge, then there was no escape. My first concert was an Aerosmith show – The Toxic Twins Towers Ball. The band were riding their late-90s high, post “Don’t Wanna Miss…” and with an album harder and rawer than they’d done for a while – the superb Nine Lives – it was, really, the ideal time to see them. They were still strong and tight and it was just before the dip that would take over a decade to pull out from, really.

It’s strange, then, that for the way in which my music collection and taste has grown and varied since I first got hold of an Aerosmith album – Big Ones – I’ve still paid attention to the boys from Boston. For all the lack of interest in the band and potential mocking I’d endure from those friends with whom I would share tastes in more ‘acceptable’ music I still plunk on Pump or Rocks when the feeling takes me. I still remember the ‘really?’ look I got when one such friend caught me coming out of a store having bought their last studio album Just Push Play. That was eleven years ago.

11 years…. in that time the band put out numerous compilations, a couple of live albums and a collection of blues covers. There were suggestions of new albums in the works and so much band bickering that it looked like game over. But still, I held out some hope. Call it nostalgia, perhaps, but I wanted to think that they’d come back and it would be good. Joe Perry released an awesome solo album then another not-quite-so-hot album that hinted that he was still firing out the licks… then Steven Tyler sat behind a desk and passed judgement on tweenie-bopper acts… and then it was confirmed: a new album WAS in the works and it was being helmed by Jack Douglas – Aerosmith’s own George Martin. To say I was hopeful was an understatement. Then I heard the first song, Legendary Child, and kinda thought… ‘oh’. I had images of the band desperately trying too hard to capture a sound long gone. I then heard ‘What Could Have Been Love’ and thought ‘oh, well, I’ll wait until it hits the bargain bins’. The buzz around the album involved talk of revisiting old riffs and song ideas and going for that old sound – it sounded like we were to expect some reheated left-overs.

And yet…

And yet last week on a rare day-off in the week with my wife I found myself in HMV buying the album – Music From Another Dimension – (in Special Edition format for that matter) on the day of release. I then found myself putting it up onto my iPod to play it through my new sound-system (which will make anything sound amazing). Strangely enough, I then found myself fucking loving it.

music from another dimensionFor a band to go back and play as if they were in their twenties (especially when most of Aerosmith are three times that age) would sound awful – those times are gone and to try and reproduce it would sound sad. But it was never about eras with Aerosmith, it was about the sound, the passion, the fun and the attitude. Something that was desperately missing from Just Push Play. Which is where this works so well: far from going back to the seventies sound Music From Another Dimension takes over from where Nine Lives left off.

Between their last decent album – Nine Lives – and the abysmal follow up, Aerosmith lent a couple of tracks to the Armageddon soundtrack. The big one, the one everybody knows and gave the band some new legs – literally for Mr Tyler – wasn’t the one that should’ve gained attention. There was a track on there that sounded like the next step for the band, what should’ve been the direction and sound to expect on their next album; What Kind of Love Are You On? was hard, gritty, riff-heavy and full of balls. Instead the next we heard was Jaded.

Until now. Music From Another Dimension is everything an Aerosmith album should be; it’s loud, it’s got passion and drive, it’s got guitars ALL over it and it’s got a pounding rhythm that will stay lodged in your head. All topped off with Steven Tyler’s trademark scatting, howling, soul-baring wail and howl. Most of all – and this is probably why I love the band – it’s FUN. There’s no pretension. This is Aerosmith; they came to play. They came to turn it up loud and fuck everything else.

There’s tunes on here that will stay lodged in your head for days – check out Tell Me and Street Jesus. Even Legendary Child is redeemed by it’s placement amongst Out Go The Lights et al. And although you can’t have an Aerosmith album these days without the odd ballad I still don’t think that much of What Could’ve Been Love.

It even got my wife’s attention and she was soon asking to have it dropped onto her iPhone – something she certainly wouldn’t have done with the last couple of Aerosmith ‘albums’. Strangely enough listening to it does spark a nostalgia for the 90s – which is odd as their stock from that period of their career was mostly the work of the late Bruce Fairbairn rather than Jack Douglas (who has done an outstanding job producing this album) – which gave us a weekend of delving into the ‘banks’ for one great tune after another. Finding a time when music was made for the sake of music and what the band had to say – not what a team of songwriters and producers wanted them to use to flog a perfumer.

The overwhelming impression I get from Music From Another Dimension is that this time the band sat down and played together for possibly the first time in a long time and came up with the tunes that they thought sounded great – not the tunes that half a dozen other writers (the most common collaborator this time around is Marti Frederiksen, hence the similarity to Nine Lives methinks), producers and industry folks wanted them to put out. Yes there is a Dianne Warren song on here but there’s also tunes by Tom Hamilton (Tell Me should be ranking up there with Janie… ), Brad Kramer and Joey Kramer along with a decent chunk of Perry / Tyler collaborations. More than that Joe Perry gets to drape his bluesy growl over two songs on this disc.

It’s an Aerosmith as a band, not a product, is back album. In a world of jury-selected music artists and auto-tuned hits, to hear an album by such a large, mainstream act that is unapologetic-ally non-pop, is refreshing. It also makes me think that there’s still hope while music is produced this way. That while the specific sounds that first got me into music back in the 90s may not be there, the soul and reasons for making music are. That there’s reason to believe guys who have seen a fair old dose of life and make music that doesn’t involve programmed loops and 15 year old boys singing ‘baby’  can still produce something vital and tough. It’s good to hope…

music from another dimension