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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Recording review - Soundgarden: Screaming Life/Fopp (2013 Reissue)

Time capsule compilation traces the roots of grunge

What if you ran into your adolescent self? You’d like to think that you’d be as cool as you are now, or at least as cool as you remember. Most likely, though, you’d just realize that the younger you was only partly formed. This reissue of Soundgarden's first two EPs, Screaming Life and Fopp provides a pre-clarified glimpse of a band that had no idea what they were part of. When Soundgarden formed in 1984, they were just another group playing around Seattle. Grunge wasn’t a thing yet, but they were creating it along with other bands like Green River, the Melvins, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana. In 1987, they finally got into the studio and cut the Screaming Life EP with Sub Pop records. They’d go on to be the first grunge act to sign with a major label, but they wouldn't hit it big until 1994, when their fourth album, Superunknown, took off. Although their previous release, Badmotorfinger (1991) made the rotation on MTV, it was “Black Hole Sun” that introduced them to a wider audience. Their sound was thick with heavy metal grind, buzz-saw guitar riffs and darkly poetic lyrics of alienation. This compilation offers hints of what was to come and what would be abandoned.

It leads off with Screaming Life’s “Hunted Down”, the band’s first single. A strafing jet engine roar of guitars kicks off a doom-driven punk slog, like Black Sabbath meets Black Flag. Chris Cornell models his voice on Ozzy Osbourne’s, although the deeper tone is all his own. Dark metal glints through the sludge as the thrashy guitars capture the sweet dissonance of punk and the rhythm section channels classic heavy metal. It’s interesting that their first single shows the clearest link between their roots and their mature sound. Unfortunately, the song loses its poise and falls apart at the end. Just as the band reaches a climax and shifts the direction of the piece, a rough fade hurries in to close the curtain. It’s a sign that the track didn't really go where they had hoped and that they needed to salvage an otherwise decent take.

The rest of the Screaming Life tracks are more derivative, revealing a lot about Soundgarden's inspirations and a little of how they would reach their creative peak. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin are constant touchstones along with a fair amount of AC/DC, but the band also favors Bauhaus and Iggy Pop. “Entering” and “Nothing to Say” in particular dredge the depths of echo-laden post-punk, which they’d eventually refine into the shadowed psychedelia underpinning their later work. On the other hand, the Primus-like quirk of “Little Joe” and the blues-rocking audio collage of “Hand of God” are side branches that would be pruned by time.

Back in 1990, Screaming Life and Fopp were re-released as a paired package. This 2013 reissue remasters all of the songs and adds a bonus track, “Sub Pop Rock City”. Originally on the Sub Pop 200 (1998) compilation, “Sub Pop Rock City” moshes through a garage punk arrangement, showing off Soundgarden's sense of humor. The hoarsely screamed vocals drop back for a couple of cut-and-paste record label in-jokes, such as asking Sub Pop partner Jonathan Poneman, “Do you think you’d have too much trouble if we got rid of our sideburns?” The light attitude is a polar opposite of the band’s normal style.

The Fopp half of the compilation breaks character even further. The band spins into a retro funk space, covering the Ohio Players’ 1976 song, “Fopp” for the title track. The band nails the groove, even copying the vocal sound of the original. Cornell whips out his best Robert Plant impersonation to sing the original’s female lead vocal lines. While Soundgarden relies more on metal guitar fills than funk horns, it’s a surprisingly straightforward cover. They double down by seamlessly transitioning to an extended remix version. They play with their earlier tracks, shoving them through an Echoplex for a psycho-disco feel. Oddly enough, it would all work fairly well on the dance floor. The remaining tracks, “Kingdom of Come” and a cover of Green River’s “Swallow My Pride”, push fewer boundaries for the band and fail to stand out.

Listening to this time capsule compilation is an interesting experience. The Screaming Life half meets expectations while introducing Soundgarden’s foundations as a punk band. With hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the roots of grunge winding through the tunes. The other tracks are maybe more important. They remind us that there’s not a straight line from adolescence to maturity. The band wasn't designing “grunge,” they were just cutting loose and having fun. Even if their adult personas might cringe a bit, it’s good to see the full complexity that spawned this iconic group.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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