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The commercial success of Nirvana, despite the way some X-generational pundits tell it, wasn’t an overnight throwing-off of the yoke of bad hair-metal bands. A half-decade before Cobain went platinum, four sonic bruisers named Metallica claimed an audience of millions of disenfranchised kids. They did it with some of the most extreme hard rock to be issued by a major label since the glory days of the Stooges and the MC5 (whose original label, Elektra, had plucked Metallica from the ranks of indie metal). Around the same time, four more rudely loud Seattle kids began a slower, but just as inexorable, march toward rock domination. That band, Soundgarden, takes to the road with Metallica for this summer’s Lollapalooza.
Predictably, the more measured sound of Metallica’s 1991 self-titled über-platinum disc—still on the charts after 57 months—and the new Load have occasioned cries of sellout from fans who miss the old nonstop thrash (well, nearly nonstop; even 1986’s Master of Puppets was flavored with a brief acoustic interlude). On top of that, the group is seen in many circles as part of the big-rock machine that Lollapalooza is supposed to be crushing. But as both an iconic metal machine and a phenom with long-held alt-rock credentials, the band plays to an audience not unlike those of Pearl Jam and Nirvana.
More than anything, Metallica frontman James Hetfield’s rightish libertarian philosophy sets the band apart from the Seattle faction. But the cover of Load seems designed in part to surprise those who’d never expect to see an Andres Serrano photograph festooning such a record. There it is, the Piss Christ man’s Sperm and Blood III, a big smear of same from the guys whose last album cover was a black field stamped with a “Don’t Tread on Me” snake. Same thing, in many ways. Just more colorful.
The music finds the quartet stretching the boundaries of its sound even further than did the tight (12 tracks!) Metallica. Southwestern bad-attituders Kyuss touted their stomps as “desert rock,” but this dusty amalgam comes much closer. Nowhere in Load’s 78:52 is a 200-mph noise to be heard; the record is far from a draggy accommodation, however. An almost lithe groove thang pushes the opening cut, “Ain’t My Bitch,” and the following “2 X 4” is not only built on a bluesy template, but cracks a smile while preaching the fuck-off gospel: “Can’t hear ya, tryin’ to meet my Lord/Can’t hear ya, talk to two-by-four.” (An opening riff on “Thorn Within” brings to mind a possible source for this new swing, nodding toward “Sunshine of Your Love” for a moment.)
Not that Load is much like a party. Hetfield growls and barks threateningly 99 percent of the time his mouth is open. While the album is lighter on social-issue content than, say, …And Justice for All (whence came “One,” the most overtly anti-war MTV hit ever), it’s hard not to interpret “Cure” as a bemused AIDS protest or “Hero of the Day” as a salute to both Vietnam vets and Oklahoma City bombing victims. More typical, though, is the first single, “Until It Sleeps,” a nearly stereotypical Metallica brooder about Hetfield’s own private troubles that will no doubt speak to thousands of uneasy teens and a goodly number of adults.
The spirited approach that has led to touches like the steel guitar on “Mama Said” and the hang-loose sneer of “Wasting My Hate” makes Load a real treat. But several cuts (“Poor Twisted Me,” for one) sound more like exercises than fully formed songs. Worse, the eight-minute-plus showpieces “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn” seem all too eager to play into the sort of mystique-building lesser bands promote. Still, there’s a hell of a 50-minute record embedded in these digital bits. Program wisely.
Angst has been a heavy-metal staple since the first Black Sabbath album. Soundgarden nearly perfected the expression of lonely but prideful unhappiness on Superunknown. That 1994 album broke the group into the mainstream for good and won praise from nearly all quarters. One of the most notable things about it—the lyrical vérité of its songs about falling into darkness—often went unremarked. But it was a record, like Nirvana’s best, whose power derived from much more than just cranked-up amps and monster hooks.
Another set as good as Superunknown might have solidified the position of Chris Cornell and cohorts as the best band in America, or the world. And Down on the Upside is undeniably fine, both recalling and expanding in small ways on its predecessor, but like Metallica’s new work, it is flawed.
Fittingly, I guess, Upside is truly grungy-sounding when heard next to the crispness of Metallica’s album. Put it on immediately after Load, and you might find yourself giving the volume knob a nudge upward just to help the Seattle guys compete. Not that they sound like they’re down in a hole or anything, but this is as stylized-murky as any record to go platinum since the Alternative Nation put up its flag.
The changes to be heard on Upside are basically slight variations on Superunknown trademarks like trippy psychedelic choruses and the stately grind of “Black Hole Sun.” This isn’t a problem, exactly, not the artistic stalling that would sound worrying on a less sure-footed record. But there are signs singer Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil might be tiring of the this-sucks-and-let-me-tell-you-how school of songwriting, where all the exhilaration comes from the music’s roar. When, on “Never Named,” Cornell declares “I’m getting all depressed,” it doesn’t even come off like a joke, much less a good one.
Sheer sonic glee carries this one enough to make it the proverbial worthy addition to the catalog. “Pretty Noose” is a cool anti-love shout-along, while “Tighter & Tighter” and “Burden” are smart glosses on past triumphs. But only “Never the Machine Forever,” a truly uneasy, Thayil-conceived (but still Cornell-sung) blowout, points toward territory that can be claimed as something like new. Rooted in both Zeppelin’s more experimental tracks and the screaming life Cornell himself has led, it’s enough to make you feel good for the guy.CP