Sunday, April 10, 2011

Soundgarden: Live on I-5 review

Up until now, the whole Soundgarden reunion has been a bit of smoke and mirrors. There was a new track, Black Rain, but actually that was an old out-take from the Badmotorfinger sessions. There was a so-called "new album", Telephantasm, but that was actually a greatest hits collection. And according to, there have been a whopping 5 live performances since the reformation was first hinted at on January 1, 2010.

This didn't do a lot to allay my skepticism about the reunion. Not because I don't think they're a great band - they sure as hell are - but because I consider Soundgarden to be one of the few bands that actually timed their exit well. They produced a run of three great albums (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside), continued to put on great live shows through 1996 and early 1997, and then called it a day. There was no gradual decline in quality, no disastrous album a la St. Anger or Risk, no terminal rotation of band members until the line-up becomes unrecognisable. No, these guys went out as one of the great musical forces of their era.

The band members had previously downplayed chances of a reunion for those reasons. History is littered with bands that have shat on their own legacies. And in the present case, I personally didn't see a lot of upside, apart from distracting Chris Cornell from producing shite like Scream.

This live album hasn't totally changed my mind, but it has made me question those views just a little bit. Live on I-5 is a great live document of a band at the top of their game, and I'll admit it has got me excited about the possibility of seeing them perform live again.

It's not hard to make a live album. But it's hard to make a really good, memorable live album. By this I mean one that doesn't come off as just 'greatest hits with crowd noise'.

I reckon Soundgarden have done it though. Live on I-5 has all those little things that can make a live album great, and it has them in spades. A great tracklist, subtle little twists and nuances here and there, jamming (but not to the point of overindulgence), a couple of nice covers, and a boatload of intensity.

It opens with Spoonman, you know, the song that they accidentally wrote in 7/4 time about a dude called Artis the Spoonman. I still don't know understand how you can accidentally write a song in 7/4. But it is a great song. And like many of the singles that pop up on I-5, it just sounds gruntier live - as do Outshined and Rusty Cage (dedicated to Johnny Cash, who of course covered the song).

But of course Soundgarden were never just about raw grunt. And that's best illustrated here with a near-unrecognisable, sparse, somewhat eerie cover of the Beatles' Helter Skelter which metamorphoses into the uplifting Boot Camp. This is no gimmick either, it's actually an incredibly clever piece of interpretation and performance. To take a Beatles classic, put a unique and enjoyable spin on it, and then blend it into a song with an entirely different mood and tone... now that's some impressive musicianship. Oh, and they do a great (and rather more faithful) cover of Search and Destroy too.

What made me particularly happy was that not only do my two (arguably) favourite Soundgarden tracks pop up on here, but the performances of both are exceptional. Firstly, Slaves and Bulldozers. You know the opening guitar riff, the slightly creepy-sounding one? Well, Kim Thayil bends the notes just a little bit harder, a little bit further, to the point where it actually sent chills down my spine. It's a classic example of a band taking a great song and pushing it just that little bit further live. There's just so much to like about this performance - Thayil's theatrics, the incredible groove that Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd lock into from the opening note, Chris Cornell throwing everything into the vocals... fantastic.

And the other really great example is Jesus Christ Pose, the album's closer. It's sonically pretty different to Slaves and Bulldozers - fast, thrashy and in-your-face, as opposed to Slaves' far more groove-driven rise-and-fall. But it comes off equally well - there's a little extra aggression and it's just messy enough to make it feel like a really great full-on live performance.

From start to finish, the band sound like a very tight musical unit, a savage weapon. The mix is really nicely balanced across guitar, bass, drums and vocals and it really gives you an appreciation that at any one time there could be four completely different things happening - such as on Slaves and Bulldozers where Matt Cameron lays down the rhythm, Ben Shepherd is playing the main refrain, Kim Thayil shreds and Chris Cornell powers through the vocals. And despite having four entirely different things going on, the whole sounds and feels incredibly well-balanced.

There are one or two slightly dubious inclusions - I've personally never rated either Dusty or Head Down amongst Soundgarden's better tracks and I would have preferred, say, Superunknown and Rhinosaur.

But as a whole package, this is a very powerful live document of a great band, and after a few listens, my scepticism about the reunion has been at least a little bit allayed, purely because now I realise I might just get the chance to hear Soundgarden live again. And this time I might be old enough to appreciate it a bit more than I did at the Big Day Out 1997.

You can listen to the whole thing here.

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