1 Soundgarden – Beyond the Wheel
Forming from the wreckage of early 80s Seattle punk band the Shemps, Soundgarden (who took their name from a wind sculpture near Seattle’s Magnuson Park) were a heavier proposition, as bassist Kim Thayil shifted to lead guitar and began laying down primal, Sabbath-esque riffage, tempered by a taut post-punk sensibility. Shemps drummer/singer Chris Cornell, meanwhile, left his kit behind and swiftly metamorphosed into the first defining frontman of the grunge era, matching Thayil’s dark guitar with a leonine howl that channelled the spirit of the great metal wailers – Plant, Osbourne, Gillan – without any of the hoary, macho baggage. And it was on this infernal track off their first full-length collection, 1988’s Ultramega OK, that Cornell’s vocal reached full maturity, rising from subterranean growl to truly chilling, metallic banshee holler.
Cornell’s roommate during Soundgarden’s early days was Andrew Wood, the flamboyant frontman with glammy Seattle rock band Mother Love Bone, who had just completed their debut album when Wood overdosed on heroin in 1990. Wood’s death hit the nascent grunge scene hard, and Cornell the hardest: as therapy for the loss, he entered Seattle’s London Bridge Studios that autumn with some of Wood’s former bandmates – bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard – to record some songs he had written in tribute to their late friend, under the name Temple of the Dog. The resulting eponymous album became an unexpected hit, aided by a single, Hunger Strike, that featured guest vocals from Eddie Vedder, who’d just joined Ament and Gossard’s new band, Pearl Jam, and who would soon learn the ropes of rock stardom from Cornell’s example. But it was the album’s opening track that was the standout, a tear-stricken, affectionate paean to Wood (“He came from an island / And he died from the street”) that can’t help but move. The track’s lightness of touch, not to mention the deftness of Cornell’s tender vocal, untethered from Soundgarden’s full-velocity behemoth rock, pointed to a potential for more complex musical expression he would soon realise.
Soundgarden signed to major label A&M for 1989’s Louder Than Love, but 1991’s Badmotorfinger was their true breakthrough, Terry Date’s gnarly, low-end production perfectly suiting a batch of songs that streamlined metal’s mighty heft and cut away all the cock-rock nonsense that had blunted the genre. Badmotorfinger had crossover hits galore – the streetwalking strut of Outshined, the brutish brilliance of Rusty Cage – but it was on the fearsome Jesus Christ Pose that the group reached their peak, Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd churning out a nightmarish tornado of black noise and twisted psychedelia, Cornell howling over the melee, sounding like he’d crawled from the bowels of hell as he rained scorn on the object of the song’s fearsome ire.
4 Soundgarden – Mind Riot
Wood’s death still haunted Cornell, however, and this momentary breather from Badmotorfinger’s magnificent assault examined the wounds of loss with raw, powerful poetry. Over hypnotic, uncoiling, psychedelic guitar lines, Cornell gazes into the flame of a candle, recalls his dead friend and charts the path of his grief. “I was crying from my eye-teeth and bleeding from my soul,” he sings. “And I sharpened my wits on a dead man’s skull.” The pain provokes Cornell to deliver one of his greatest vocal performances – muscular but vulnerable, anguished but possessing a profound dignity – and the song closes with the image of Cornell as “luck’s last match struck / In the pouring down wind”. Among the album’s colossal riffage, this aching moment of anguish was perhaps their most powerful statement yet.
5 Soundgarden – Into the Void (Sealth)
The group’s mission to revitalise metal was made literal as they reworked one of Black Sabbath’s most magnificent riffs – the closing highlight of 1971’s Master of Reality. Only this time they replaced the original’s slightly dopey sci-fi lyrics with a poem penned by Sealth, the Native American chief after whom the city of Seattle was named. Recast now as an acrid, venom-spitting assault on the white man and the damage he has caused the earth and its indigenous people, Into the Void (Sealth) is a heavy track, sharpened by Cornell’s fearsome, venomous vocal.
6 Chris Cornell – Seasons
Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie Singles was a harmless, affecting romcom that happened to be filmed in Seattle in the final days before Nirvana made grunge a globe-conquering phenomenon, and featured cameo appearances from numerous grunge luminaries, including Pearl Jam, Tad Doyle and, as a mute clown who breaks his vow of silence at a key moment, Cornell himself. This acoustic solo song was a highlight of the movie’s acclaimed soundtrack, a moment of heavy, gentle folk rock that sounded like it had slipped off the third Zeppelin album.
Soundgarden’s fourth album, Superunknown, still boasted plenty of gnarliness – Limo Wreck and Mailman were particularly skull-scouring moments of brilliance – but it was this track that became the group’s breakthrough hit, wandering from major to minor and back again in its magical, happy/sad way. The endless, crushing weight of depression is Black Hole Sun’s subject – and, arriving the same year that Kurt Cobain took his own life, it was as timely as it has proved timeless. The song is never self-indulgent or self-pitying, but rather heroic in its honest admission of loss and sadness. Cornell’s vocal matches the song’s swings from music-box prettiness to heart-gashed heaviness with supernatural grace.
Another of Superunknown’s magnificently bleak anthems, this blackly comedic tale of yelling “Carpe diem” into the face of all your demons also struck a powerfully ambivalent tone, as, by the song’s close, that action has not changed the narrator’s world. This bitter morality play is sent skyward by some of Soundgarden’s most cosmic, complex riffs, a downward-sinking melody that builds and builds until Thayil’s epic slide-guitar transforms it into something truly colossal. And Cornell’s performance in the final verse – howling against the group’s hurricane stomp, “I should have stayed in bed!” – is one of his greatest. A real goosepimples moment, no matter how many times you’ve heard the song.
Soundgarden struggled with the success that followed Superunknown, and while their subsequent album Down on the Upside had many highlights – the darkly psychedelic Pretty Noose, the potent gloom of Blow Up the Outside World – internal ructions soon tore the group apart. Cornell went on to chart an unpredictable career, which began with the spectral, psychedelic solo album Euphoria Morning in 1999, before taking a left-turn when he joined forces with three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine to form the supergroup Audioslave, and arriving with this, the satisfyingly meaty crunch of Cochise.
10 Soundgarden – Bones of Birds
Cornell reconvened with his old bandmates in 2012 for a reunion album, King Animal, which offered enough moments of inspiration to call it a comeback. The sad, eerie Bones of Birds was perhaps the highlight, an understated, existential blues in the psychedelic vein of Mind Riot that found Cornell musing on innocence and the profound shock that follows its loss. King Animal was accompanied by some of the best shows Soundgarden had performed in years, Cornell in even finer voice than during the group’s heyday, and was followed by a triumphant solo acoustic tour last year. Soundgarden were back on the road this year, and were working on another album when Cornell died after a gig in Detroit on 16 May. While his passing leaves a painful silence where more noise should follow, Cornell’s wonderful vocals and gift for haunting, tenderly muscular songwriting will endure.