October 8th, 1991, Soundgarden released their third studio album, Badmotorfinger, through A&M Records. 1991 was a watershed year for music. Nirvana’s Nevermind, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Smashing Pumpkins Gish, Temple Of The Dog’s Self Titled, The Jesus Lizard’s Goat, Metallica’s Black Album, A Tribe Called Quest’s Low-End Theory, My Bloody Valentine Loveless, the list goes on and on. 1991 moved us into the next musical epoch. The outpouring of creativity felt cathartic, ushering in a shift in musical trends and rewriting the cultural zeitgeist.
Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is a pinnacle of ’90s alternative rock. Released in a year of abundant masterpieces, it outstrips most of the competition for individuality, inventiveness and artistry. Dissecting the components that make up this extortionary album leaves the listener with the question of how four guys in their mid-twenties plumed the depths of their creativity and imagination in such a profound way.
Breaking Badmotorfinger down into its core elements is a challenging thing to do. In the album’s writing, Soundgarden were operating on a different wavelength to most of their peers. Yes, the band worked within the long-established confines of guitar, bass, drums and voice. Still, where some take that mould as a means to an end, Soundgarden used these essential elements to push the boundaries of their creativity to extraordinary places.
The band’s penchant for odd time signatures and odder guitar tunings was, in ’91, staggeringly original among the alternative rock and metal subset. What set Soundgarden apart from nearly all rock bands that dabble in strange metered time signatures was their uncanny ability to make it sound “normal.” Their songwriting and deep-set groove was so confident, honest and imbued with an earthy feel one doesn’t even notice the abnormal song structures and elements used.
Yet there was nothing “normal” about Soundgarden or the songs they presented. Once dubbed by guitarist Kim Thayil as the “Heavy Metal White Album,” Badmotorfinger doesn’t fall neatly into any category. It’s not grunge. It’s neither heavy metal nor hard rock. It’s not even alternative rock. Yet, while combining all those things, it ultimately carves out its own niche. The band didn’t set out to be so contrary. Instead, it was just Soundgarden being Soundgarden and indulging in what Thayil calls the band’s “natural weirdness.”
The importance of each member cannot be overstated. Kim Thayil, Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron had forged a potent musical bond. Each of their genuinely unique skills complimented and enhanced all facets of Soundgarden’s output. The introduction of bassist Ben Shepherd in early 1991 was a masterstroke. Here was a musician who easily traversed the gateway to his creative side and wasn’t afraid to embrace the “natural weirdness” within.
Ben Shepherd recalls joining Soundgarden, “I was so honoured and freaked out and over my head, but still within a brethren of those three guys, those three mentors taking me under their wing, I was a little brother. I was way younger than them. It made me feel like Charlie getting the Golden Ticket at the Chocolate Factory.”
“Ben joining the band changed seven songwriting relationships right off the bat—Ben with me, Ben with Matt, Ben with Chris, Ben with me and Chris, Ben with Chris and Matt and Ben with me and Matt”, explains Thayil, “So that was a significant change in the way we were writing and producing stuff.” While in any band, the importance of each member bringing different core influences to the songwriting table is expected, in Soundgarden’s case, the once-in-a-lifetime talents of its members accentuated those ideas in ways most could never attain.
“Ben and I both liked to play really fast, having more of a punk rock background, and when you have a drummer as amazing as Matt, you can support the weird time signatures you might explore,” continues Kim, “Chris has an amazing way of writing melodies around these odd-time signatures that a lot of people have a tough time doing. They can only really sing and think in 4/4 because it’s hard to do the odd time signatures and have your vocal melody wrap around it. It’s very natural for Chris, though, because he was our original drummer, so he can think in those terms. And Matt is just incredible—he comes from a background in jazz, which really helped. We could explore and take these risks because we knew we had a drummer who could handle it.”
Matt Cameron adds, “Once Ben joined the band, I think our creative powers just changed a little bit. We had this other element in there. I always joked that Ben and I were trying to make a jazz record, and Kim and Chris were trying to make the ultimate hard rock record.”
The introduction of Ben Shepherd added a dynamic to the band, which fed into the creativity around the writing of Badmotorfinger. But it wasn’t the only new approach they were experimenting with. Previously, songwriting meant a band member bringing their idea to rehearsal, the band hashing it out, and remembering what they worked on for the next rehearsal. Chris Cornell forged a new approach for Badmotorfinger; Kim Thayil explains:
“A lot of the album was initiated by demo tapes that Chris sent to the band. Before that, we’d bring songs to rehearsal and play them for each other, and then we’d learn it and record it on a four-track. The unique thing this time was—going to rehearsal, and rather than coming back with a memory of having learned a riff or a part on guitar, I came home with a cassette of clear, fully-recorded 8-track studio recordings of two or three songs that Chris had done and presented to the band.”
This approach worked well as the new arrangments were more complex. “The ones that stood out were “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” and “Rusty Cage,” remembers Thayil. Choosing to work with producer Terry Date, who had worked wonders on the band’s previous album, 1989’s Louder Than Love, the band headed to Sausalito, California, to begin recording.
Terry Date recalls the recording setup in the studio, “The funny thing was Chris was in the control with me, recording! We recorded Badmotorfinger at Studio D Recording in Sausalito, California. It was a one-room studio, one big live room with a couple of iso-booths. I had Matt Cameron’s drums in the middle of the room, and I had Ben Shepherd and Kim Thayil in the same room with Matt, but their amps were separated in the iso-booths. There wasn’t any place for Chris to be, and because his voice was so loud, it would have spilt into the drum mics had we set him up in the main room with the band. So Chris was in the control room with me, playing and singing when the band played live.”
“Chris was open-minded and accepting of every idea,” remembers Ben Shepherd, “And then he would take something and finish it, and every time it was like, “That is cool. That is Soundgarden all the way.” You know what I mean? When you daydream about working on something with someone, he would be the ultimate partner to work on something with. He could finish your sentence for you. And his lyrics were incredible.”
Matt Cameron remembers the mentality of the band going into the recording, “I felt like one aspect for me that made Badmotorfinger a jumping-off point was that this was all new material. There were no leftovers on that album. We had all been able to quit our day jobs around the late ‘80s, like ’88 ’89, right around the Louder Than Love period. We could focus on songwriting, rehearsing, playing gigs, and everything that comes with being in a semi-successful rock band in the late ‘80s.”
Badmotorfinger opens with “Rusty Cage,” Its intro is a call-and-response guitar duel; the guitar tones are throaty and unusual due to the use of a cocked wah effect where the guitarist engages the wah pedal and leaves it in the halfway position, creating an odd vowel-like tone. The band races in on Matt Cameron’s charge, propelling a slippery, sliding drop B guitar riff at breakneck speed. “Rusty Cage” is effectively three songs in one. Its structure is in three wholly different sections. Its A section careens past in a blur of whipping riffage, with two verses and chorus breakdowns. Its B section is darker, with a more vicious punk rock edge; Chris’ voice sinks to his lower register. The song’s C section and outro is a super heavy, sludge workout in seven-bar phrases consisting of four bars of 3/4 followed by one bar of 2/4, a bar of 3/4 and a bar of 2/4. “Rusty Cage” could only have been written by Soundgarden, a unique song that was the third single from the album and was later covered by Johnny Cash.
“Outshined” was the second single released from the album. The song’s main riff is a concussive blast of drop D sludge in an unorthodox 7/4 time signature. Cornell bellows some instantly memorable lyrics through the verse, including “Well, I just looked in the mirror, and things aren’t looking so good. I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota.” Film director Steve Baigelman named his 1996 crime-comedy Feeling Minnesota, starring Keanu Reeves as a homage to this line. The pre-chorus lightens the tone musically, with Cornell wailing, “So now you know, who gets mystified.” The chorus returns to a catchy, powerful riff as Cornell pleads, “Show me the power, child; I’d like to say that I’m down on my knees today.”
“Slaves And Bulldozers” is a true behemoth. It’s the musical equivalent of planets colliding. Blunt force, glacial riffing and atonal guitar fills are augmented by a gobsmacking vocal performance from Cornell. Not since the heyday of Robert Plant had a vocalist attempted, let alone achieved, such transcendental vocal histrionics within the confines of a rock song. The earthiness of their voices set Chris and Plant apart; while soaring, they always came from a grounded place. Because of this, they were relatable; every nuance of their performances bled with pathos and character. Chris Cornell delivered performances like this throughout his career. His soul and voice were hewn from the soil; only at times it felt like the soil of a distant planet, such was its other-worldliness.
The first single from the album was “Jesus Christ Pose”, and what a statement it is! Opening with a barrage of feedback. Matt Cameron’s rolling drum pattern is stunning in its virtuosity, intensity and athleticism. Cornell enters with a piercing shriek once the band locks in with a speedy, chromatic main riff. It’s unsettling in its tension building, and it doesn’t offer much relief in its climb toward its first moment of release at the three-and-a-half-minute mark. Following that, it transforms into what can only be described as a thrash metal riff before returning to a sledgehammer two-chord beatdown and descending into chaos as Cornell wails violently exhilarating helium shrieks.
“Face Pollution” is a blasting punk banger. But in usual Soundgarden fashion, nothing is straightforward. The song’s middle-eight, is spectacular; it can only be described as a discordant avant-garde jazz/metal thrill ride complete with saxophone and trumpet by Scott Granlund and Ernest Long. “Somewhere” is, at heart, a beautiful glide through an interstellar dreamscape. While still heavy, its tone is conciliatory. Washing over the listener as Cornell sings, “I wish a wish I dream to dream. I try to try, and I live to live. And die to die, and I cry to cry. But I know why.” The song’s EEBBBE guitar tuning adds an ethereal feel.
“Searching With My Good Eye Closed” opens with a droning soundscape with the voice of Damon Stewart narrating, “This is my good eye. Do you hear a cow? A rooster says. Here is a pig. The devil says.” The song’s riff enters with a crushing drop-B motif. Chris Cornell said in 1992, “A lot of times, there’s no particular intent to my songs lyrically,” he said. “A lot of times, like on ‘Searching With My Good Eye Closed,’ I’ll sort of let the music write the lyric. What I enjoy doing is making paintings with lyrics – creating colourful images. I think that’s more entertaining and what music should be.” He continued, “My favourite thing to do is create a situation, a story, a circumstance that doesn’t exist. I’m not the type of writer who can say, ‘Here’s my sex song’; ‘Here’s my love song’; ‘Here’s my political song.'”
“Room A Thousand Years Wide” is an aptly titled Matt Cameron song. It’s impossible to pick standout pieces on this album; the quality is so high. But “Room A Thousand Years Wide” is one for the ages. It is a molten, spiritual experience. Cornell howls, “Tomorrow begat tomorrow.” over a devastatingly powerful accompaniment. The outro rages with spitting, free jazz saxophone shrieks from Scott Granlund.
“Mind Riot” must have one of the most unorthodox guitar tunings ever used in a rock song. Tuned EEEEEE. Like painting a picture with a single colour, one might assume a tuning like that to be restrictive, but in the hands of Soundgarden, they deliver a song rich with feel and dynamics.
“Drawing Flies” is another punk-infused blast. Cornell bellows, “Sitting here like uninvited company, Wallowing in my own obscenities, I share a cigarette with negativity. Sitting here like wet ashes. With x’s in my eyes and drawing flies.”
Regarding “Holy Water,” Chris talked about how this song is so often construed as anti-religion diatribe, quite the contrary. Instead, the song is about the dangers of fiercely pressing beliefs on a person; Chris explains, “‘Holy Water’ is more of a poetic way of saying I don’t appreciate having anybody’s ideas thrust upon me like their baggage. Lyrically, the song will be taken literally as a slight on religion. But it isn’t; it’s anything: vegetarianism, political ideas, new age-ism, any ism. When people offer you these things, especially if they offer them aggressively, they assume you’re confused and unhappy. But to me, that’s insulting.”
“New Damage” closes out this landmark album with a bang. Its firey descending riff and frantic, discordant soloing set up a journey through a dystopian nightmare, “The wreck is going down; get out before you drown, The wreck is going down; get out before you drown.” The main riff transforms into a hypnotic, cyclical holding pattern, not unlike the opening track “Ugly Truth” from their 1989 album Louder Than Love.”
Badmotorfinger is a triumph of artistic spirit. It’s a testament to what can be achieved when the right mix of creatives control their destiny. Soundgarden had musicianship and talent that far outstripped their peers, but they used it in an inclusive, inviting way. Theirs was a form of rock n roll that fans could enjoy on a surface level. But digging deeper revealed infinite layers of mysterious, awe-inspiring beauty. There will never be another Soundgarden. They were too idiosyncratic to copy or mimic, their elements too profound.