When Soundgarden released their debut EP, Screaming Life, on October 1st, 1987, the term ‘grunge’ wasn’t even a thing. Nirvana and Alice In Chains had barely formed, while Mother Love Bone and Mudhoney were still non-existent. Alongside Washington State contemporaries Green River, Malfunkshun and (the) Melvins, Soundgarden was part of an early crop of new bands emanating from the Pacific Northwest, who were rewriting the blueprint for off-kilter rock music that blended elements of punk, hardcore, and metal into a potent mix.
Was ‘grunge’ ever a thing? It’s difficult to remember a time in rock history when a word tried so hard to accommodate so many bands under one umbrella who were so sonically different. The exercise of giving a scene a name isn’t the issue; trying to align vastly different artists under one roof is cumbersome. “Grunge” is as all-encompassing and catch-all as the term “Alternative Rock.” The bands usually attributed to the grunge moniker are as diverse and divergent as those associated with alternative rock. Ultimately, they’re cut from the same cloth.
From the beginning, Soundgarden was a curious dichotomy within a scene that relished individuality and contrast among its musician cohorts. Screaming Life was a clarion call to those who heard its feral howl over the din of glam rock polluting the airwaves and magazine stalls in 1987. Nowhere was this dichotomy embodied more than in the personage of Chris Cornell. Everything was at odds from the very start but somehow fit so perfectly. Here was a shirtless, genetically gifted adonis, fronting an arty, noisy rock band with metal, sludge, new-wave and goth rock leanings.
Cornell’s commanding vocal prowess matches any rock deity of yesteryear, while his early musical choices referenced the alternative rock and punk sphere rather than classic rock.
The band’s first single, “Hunted Down”, roars from the gate with a looping riff from Kim Thayil; drenched in chorus and heavy on dissonance, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t going to be a “normal” walk in the park. Thayil said, “That song wasn’t supposed to be as heavy sounding as it turned out. We just started jamming on the riff, and it took on the ‘noise rock’ dimensions, kind of a rhythmic thing. And that solo is a noise solo. It’s very dissonant.”
“Hunted Down” was Sub Pop Record’s first “on hold music” when anyone contacted the label’s offices. According to Kim Thayil, “You would call them up, and when they put you on hold, you heard ‘Hunted Down’.”
“Entering” starts with a drumbeat that resembles Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” before morphing into a thunderous romp of barbed guitar lines and incessant wails from Cornell. The song breaks down again, with Thayil coaxing Cure-like guitar atmospherics from his Guild while Cornell dictates an ominous spoken word passage. “Entering” is one of Soundgarden’s lost classics. It’s an incredible trip through the twisted soundscapes of a band of young visionaries.
“Tears To Forget” is an astonishingly feral punk rock blast. Cornell adopts an almost-death metal shredded rasp, which he never returned to throughout the rest of his recorded career. Musically, Kim Thayil shreds through a litany of stunningly aggressive riffs as Matt Cameron and Hiro Yamamoto navigate an obstacle course of rhythmic dynamics.
“Nothing To Say” gives credence to the school of thought that Soundgarden were the natural heirs to the Black Sabbath throne—doom-laden and deliberate in its funeral march. The song possesses all the foreboding and bleak atmosphere each member could wring out of their instruments.
“Little Joe” is a melting pot of new-wave, pop, punk and funk influences. Cornell’s vibrato is high-pitched and exaggerated—Cameron and Yamamoto’s rhythm section channel Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads. Kim Thayil splashes rich shades of colour throughout; his guitar flourishes are expressive and exhilarating in their wild abandon, referencing The Cure, John McGeoch and PIL.
“Hand Of God” closes the Screaming Life EP. Opening with an excerpt of a preacher delivering a sermon, which ends, “He says “vanity of vanities the whole thing is a vain parade. It has no meaning.” The band drives into a wrecking ball groove replete with shards of guitar and crushing drums.
Screaming Life is a vital recording. Soundgarden hit the ground running, sounding fresh and bursting with ideas and potential; this EP only points us toward the greatness to come.