Things I learnt from SUPERUNKNOWN
Soundgarden's 'Superunknown' was one of the first rock albums I fell in love with. I was 12 when it came out, in 1994, and I remember 'Black Hole Sun' being on the radio, and it being about the same time as Primal Scream's 'Rocks', which I think I knew was a fraudulent pastiche even then.
I gave it a listen yesterday, and noticed a huge amount of pointers in the record I've just stolen whole heartedly. I was writing about covers in a previous post, and how SFA and Bravecaptain influenced me to incorporate the remix into the song (my song 'tofu' on the forthcoming album has elements of this now); but listening back to superunknown, there's a whole slew of themes that I've been casually using that I didn't even realise went straight back to this record.
1. Odd Timings Are Cool
You can hardly call Soundgarden 'mathcore'. They're don't play that way. But it's an album where 4/4 can hardly be called the norm; it opens and closes the album*, but only features in about half the tracks. My first impressions of the album were that it was self-indulgent, but the odd timings here aren't that odd in general. There's lots of dropped beats; Notice in the similarity in the rhythm of 'The Day I Tried To Live' and my song 'Tofu', both have a jaunty (7+8)/4 (I use this to mean alternating bars of 7/4 and 8/4). But even the predominantly common-time songs have dropped beats all over the shop - like 'Mailman' - or some fantastically perverse ways of arranging 4/4 time. 'Fresh Tendrils' has some awkward back beat, likewise, 'Head Down' manages to make 4/4 sound like a chaotic eruption.
I wonder now if the reason I'm fascinated by odd timings is that i suffer from dysrhythmia; Moby's 'honey' sounds completely wrong to me. I just can't resolve the beat on it. I had a lot of trouble with e1m9 on doom, too; I've literally only got the rhythm right in my head for it in the last year, 19 years after it was released. Maybe these songs sound normal to other people. Anyway, if it hadn't have been for superunknown, I might never have become interested in anything outside 4/4.
2. Odd Tunings Are Cool
You wouldn't know from listening to the record that the band are playing in anything other than in drop-d and standard tuning. When I looked up, and printed off, the transcriptions on the internet, I was amazed by the plethora of unusual tunings (also, it was a clear indication they'd been ripped off the official songbook). A bunch of songs are in tunings that you could only play that one song in - 'My Wave', for instance with its ludicrous E-E-B-B-B-B tuning, 'Like Suicide' with its D-G-D-G-B-C tuning (for non-musicians, let me explain: you'd never normally tune a guitar so that two strings are only a semi-tone apart. This is a very specific tuning to make one particular riff sound 'just so').
I was a fairly inexperienced guitarist at the time, and this completely opened my mind not just to drop-d tuning, but also the whole idea that a guitar should be tuned for the performer. Often, since then, I would find a melody or riff, and decide that the guitar could be set up better to play it. Maybe it would be easier if it were in drop-d, or open G, or open D, or even something entirely new. Or maybe I would start with an odd tuning, and play around, see what comes out. It's a great way to break out of old habits and freshen up the fingers.
As I started playing live with a band, I went back to playing with a standard tuning more often. We weren't soundgarden, with roadies, budget, and hundreds of guitars waiting in the wings to be brought on, ready for the exact next song we were going to play. But in solo shows, I love the opportunity to have a moment of retuning, offer some jokes, some anecdotes, and be more intimate with the audience; the different feeling from different tunings is more pronounced when there's just one instrument on stage. Nick Drake was a great re-tuner as well, but reputedly froze up on stage with no banter, the poor thing.
3. Fretwanking is ok, as long as it's not centre-stage
Bill Bailey look-a-like Kim Thayil is a great guitarist, that's not up for debate; 100th best guitarist of all time, according to rolling stone. I find him a mysterious figure on the record; his lead guitar lines don't cut through the whole song, and he just seems to contribute when necessary. When he's not beefing up the main riff, it's not usually melodic, but improvised, flailing guitar; and then sometimes, he just had some nice simple harmonies. The best example of this is during 'Fell on Black Days'. But when he's fretwanking, it's never the point of the song; many prog-rock and metal bands would have virtuoso instrumental performances as the entire raison d'etre of the band. Here, it's just a touch, it's in it's place, and it's a part of the whole mix. We're not meant to hear it and go 'wow, he's such a good guitarist!', it's not mixed to the foreground, with a sign next to it saying 'listen to me go'. It's expressive, but it's not dictatorial. Maybe this is simply in keeping with the times, the shift away from extended guitar solos; maybe the success of Superunknown helped form that shift. Either way, it taught me that there was a point to guitar soloing, and many of my tracks leave room for an improvised section, usually around particular key notes and phrases. That self-indulgence is ok, as long as it's not the point, as long as you're not force-feeding people your 'genius', but letting it float on the mix instead.
4. Can't Make Your Mind up which take to keep in the mix? Use both
There's lots of double-tracked rhythm guitar on the record; that's usual. It gives more depth and longer-lasting appeal. But what I remember from the record is not just Cornell's vocal range, his variety of styles that he could draw on and switch between - the rock wail, the harmonious voice, and his barely-singing murmer - but how he would use them together, in ways you could only do with overdubs. For instance, 4th of July; a droney-stoner rock song, with the rock vocal lower down in the mix than the soft vocal. The contrast and balance is fantastic; either take would have been good but by putting them both in, we've achieved both simultaneously, plus the contrast.
For the same reason, I love 'Crossing Over' by Cult of Luna, a track that has wonderful doubled vocals. I love the stacked vocals in TV On The Radio songs. In my own recordings, I've usually tried a couple of different takes, then decided the track sounds best with both. This isn't a comment on multitracking itself, but how the interplay of different interpretations is highlighted when they're mixed together. Maybe a more subtle approach would be to do one style one verse, another style the next; that's fine too.
5. Keep The Tracklisting and Instrumentation Varied
Superunknown is a pretty pessimistic album. Opening with 'Let Me Drown' and closing with 'Like Suicide' - a song written after Cornell had to kill a bird that flew into his window, the hook lyric being "love's like suicide" (prefiguring, probably co-incidentally, the similar line in Smashing Pumpkins' 'Bodies') - the lyrical themes are of desolation, apocalypse, despression, and on 'The Day I Tried To Live', the perils of trying to get up and dressed. Meanwhile, the music is as varied a collection of rock songs as you could find outside a Blur album. You could broadly describe it all as grunge, but that doesn't capture the variety of styles in the album. It 'runs the gamut' of rock, from sludgey doom to punk and riffy rock, with a few more things too; actually, thinking about it, this is quite usual for grunge bands. And while the lineup is fairly constant through the record, most tracks have some extra instrumentation that piques the ear a little, such as melotron, extra puercussion, spoons, or simply very bizzarre-sounding guitar. The variety of harmonies, scales, instruments, timings, effects, all add interest and psychedelia to what could have been a very rough, dull, monotonous album. kind of like 'badmotorfinger'.
So yeah. It's a great record, but unlike other great records, I can see so much of what I love about music, and so much of what I love about the music I make started here. I reccomend it to anyone.
*I'm excluding 'she likes surprises' as the official last track since it's a bonus track, but I will include it while talking about the record.