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Live review: Soundgarden at the Forum

July 24, 2011 |  4:32 pm

The band’s powerful, precise playing makes for a happy reunion tour.

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell at the Forum in 2011

There’s a funny story about Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil during the recording of the band’s 1994 album, “Superunknown.” Thayil was reportedly feeling uncomfortable in the recording studio’s sterile setting, and it showed in his playing. To better re-create the comfy living room where he worked out his band’s punishing, sludgy guitar riffs, he had his own couch moved into the studio’s live room. He nailed his riffs after that.

What’s the lesson here (besides that it was really fun being in a bestselling grunge band in the ‘90s)? Making art requires the right setting. And though the four members of Soundgarden (particularly Tarzan-howling singer Chris Cornell) had wandered into other, sometimes less successful projects and solo ventures since the band’s 1997 breakup, the band’s Friday night reunion-tour set at the Forum in Inglewood, which featured L.A. band the Mars Volta opening, showed the power of their natural environment.

The band’s tour couldn’t have come at a better time. With a lack of groundbreaking new rock bands reaching mainstream viability, a ‘90s nostalgia-fest is in full swing. Soundgarden’s Seattle peers Nirvana is getting deep 20-year retrospectives, Pavement just wrapped up a lauded reunion jaunt and MTV is bringing back “120 Minutes” and “Beavis and Butt-Head.”

August Brown describes  Chris Cornell as a "Tarzan-howling singer."

This provides a nice framework to assess how truly brutal and inventive Soundgarden was in its prime. Grunge took classic rock’s most primitive impulses and scuffed them with the knowing discord of kids raised on hardcore punk and indie rock. Cornell and band attacked opposite poles of rock music — the sex-god wail and drone-based jams of Led Zeppelin and the black-tar scrim of peers like the Melvins — and made something new from both.

You can hear all those same influences again at L.A.’s cutting-edge clubs today but not often played with Soundgarden’s precision and swagger. The members’ offshoot projects during their separation had varied widely. Cornell’s easygoing recent solo acoustic tour, drummer Matt Cameron’s joining Pearl Jam and Thayil’s collaboration with doom-metallers Boris and Sunn 0))) earned praise; Cornell’s Audioslave project with three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine sold well but discarded funk and heaviness; and Cornell’s much-panned album with Timbaland felt ambitious but clumsy.

But maybe they just needed to bide their time until rock fans were ready for alternate-tuned riffs and odd time signatures again. On Friday, the band crushed an early volley of singles like “Blow Up the Outside World” and “Spoonman,” which highlighted their serpentine riffing that shared genes with Jimmy Page. “Jesus Christ Pose” and “Gun” showed how good the band is at drawing out a long, slow grind and making something both misanthropic and entrancing from it.

Cornell’s idiosyncratic wail, which has always evoked an Ozzy Osbourne whose falsetto could break glass, was in fine form. But the main revelation at the Forum was how good a band can still sound, especially in an era where most chart-topping music is made by Swedish pop geniuses in hilltop castles and underground music made by laptop noise-ninjas. Something like the lurching, 5/4-time “My Wave” and 9/8 “Black Rain” can feel indebted to both classic rock and the punk rock that killed it off and still have the ring of a hit when played so powerfully.


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-- August Brown

Images: Chris Cornell at the Forum. Credits: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times