When Soundgarden split up in 1997, the press didn’t canonize the band like it did to fellow ‘90s grunge casualty Nirvana. The group’s demise was merely mourned with sad platitudes, marked as yet another nail in the coffin that was alternative rock’s declining mainstream power at the end of the decade. Since then, it’s been easy to take the band’s existence for granted, reserved for obligatory acknowledgment in grunge histories and by the continued presence of select Soundgarden hits on rock radio stations. However, steps are being taken to rectify that, as earlier this year, the group’s classic quartet of Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron has taken cues from other major alt-rock bands that imploded around the lean years where nu-metal and teen pop dominated popular music (Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Blur, etc.) by reforming for a spate of touring.
To commemorate (or cash in on, depending on how cynical you are) this development, A&M has issued a new deluxe-sized retrospective, Telephantasm (a bare bones 12-track single-disc edition is also available). The immediate question raised is whether or not there is actually a need for a second Soundgarden compilation. After all, the 1998 singles collection A-Sides issued following the group’s initial demise hit pretty much all the high points one would expect a Soundgarden collection to cover. Ah, but what people often forget when it comes to compilation albums is that context is key. By stretching out, roping in key non-single cuts, and providing a bonus DVD loaded with all the group’s videos, Telephantasm not only supplants A-Sides as the definitive Soundgarden compilation, but it emerges as one of the most thrilling, effective band retrospectives to come out in years.
I like Soundgarden as much as any other rock fan probably does (tracks from the band’s 1994 masterpiece Superunknown still figure into my personal listening rotation), but what’s astounding about Telephantasm is how its presentation of the band’s material makes it compulsively listenable. Upon first receiving a copy of the album, I popped the second disc into my computer merely to see if the live version of “Jesus Christ Pose” included was really worthy of replacing its studio counterpart (which, in my mind, is one of the most confounding, yet exhilarating, singles ever released by a major record label) on the record’s running order. Five or six tracks later, I had to forcefully pull myself away in order to complete my errands for the day. Once this record starts, you do not want to hit the stop button. Furthermore, the record never lets up in regard to either infectiousness or visceral-ness: akin to my first experience listening to the 1997 remix of the Stooges’ classic album Raw Power, the thought that constantly ran through me during my initial examination was “I think this album is actually trying to murder me”.
The deluxe version of Telephantasm stretches from “All Your Lies” from the seminal 1986 Deep Six compilation, on through to the new single “Black Rain”, which is actually a previously unreleased song recorded during sessions for Soundgarden’s 1991 breakthrough Badmotorfinger. Early on, Soundgarden was already compelling, even if a little too conventionally metal in places. Built out of spiraling hypno-riffs, “All Your Lies” showcases a raw, sinewy Soundgarden featuring vocals by a fresh-faced Cornell that surprisingly recall Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. Although one of the founders of grunge in the mid 1980s, Soundgarden was always more complicated than the conventional shorthand description of the genre as a simple mash-up of punk and heavy metal: aside from an audible Black Flag influence, the group evidenced more of a desire to mix arty, dissonant post-punk (Bauhaus and Gang of Four) and “pigfuck” noise rock (Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers) than standard hardcore with its ’70 metal riffing.
“All Your Lies” is a hell of a start, and Telephantasm continues to impress over the course of the first disc as the group finds its voice and hones its attack. Even as early as “Beyond the Wheel”, Soundgarden was demonstrating how adept it was at delivering awe-inspiring apocalyptic doom dirges. Another important development was the gradual introduction of psychedelic influences, which added color to Soundgarden’s monochrome angst. Relative weak spots like “Fopp” (wah-wah pedal heavy-funk that only really clicks whenever it gets to the chorus) and “Big Dumb Sex” (a crass pseudo-anthem that isn’t really good enough to make up for its ham-fisted attempt at irony) do emerge, but these are minor concerns as the disc is able to regain its momentum after each misstep, and the disc ends stronger than it begins as it concludes with A-rate cuts from Badmotorfinger like the downer-than-down rock radio staple “Outshined” and the appropriately-descriptive “Slaves and Bulldozers”. While the initial major label positioning of Soundgarden as the next Guns ‘N Roses seemed at odds with its roots in the Sub Pop-dominated Seattle alt-rock scene, there is no such ideological conflict contained in the music itself, which posits the group as a perfect mixture of metal and alternative sensibilities, able to straddle both genres as if they were one integrated whole.
If the first disc made the case that the band hit the ground running creatively from the outset, by the second disc, Telephantasm convincingly argues for the band’s place alongside metal icons Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the two bands it was most often compared to. Kicking off with the phenomenal 1993 live rendition of “Jesus Christ Pose” (a superheated cauldron of metal and alternative rock that constantly threatens to scorch your face off, ending with over a minute of post-trauma guitar feedback), the disc runs through the Singles soundtrack contribution “Birth Ritual” before making its way through a hefty chunk of Superunknown. When the band’s biggest hit, “Black Hole Sun”, finally shows up, the mood is serene yet disconcerting, like being passed over by the eye of a devastating hurricane. As the album reaches the cuts culled from the band’s final album, Down on the Upside (1996), the group has finally shaken off its remaining Zeppelisms (aside from Cornell’s eternally Robert Plant-flavored wail) in favor of casting itself as a sort of grunge Beatles, all Lennonesque melodies intertwined with Soundgarden’s customary detuned, odd-meter riffs. It’s certainly more melodic than what have come before, but the intensity remains. After all that, the newly-released “Black Rain” has a lot to live up to. Refreshingly, the track is vintage Soundgarden, a perfectly acceptable addition to the set even if its psychedelic Sabbath-isms become a bit repetitive.
If that wasn’t enough, the bonus DVD rounds up every Soundgarden promo video, including alternate and uncensored versions. The visuals are less cohesive than the musical assemblage, as the rock vid clichés of the Louder than Love promos (large spot-lit soundstages and lots of hard rock posturing) stand at odds with the seemingly mandatory surreal imagery of 1990s alternative rock videos that dominates the rest of the clips. Nothing exemplifies this aesthetic shift better than how Chris Cornell (grunge’s only true sex symbol) appears in full bare-chested and long-haired glory up until the Superunknown era, where he opts for a more post-Alternative Nation-friendly messy crop and t-shirts. If you can forgive the dated computer special effects (particularly on the “Superunknown” video included in the Bonus section), many of the videos still hold up to a modern viewing.
What prevents Telephantasm from being absolutely perfect is some rather boneheaded tracklist decisions. The biggest omission is the harrowing Superunknown single “The Day I Tried to Live”, truly one of the band’s bleakest and most powerful moments. Several tracks see their studio incarnations replaced by previously-unreleased live renditions. The material is certainly appreciated, but not at the expense of the regular versions. While the live version of “Jesus Christ Pose” unequivocally earns its keep, other substitutions don’t fare as well, being hampered by poor recording quality (“Get on the Snake”), subpar performance (the Saturday Night Live broadcast of “Pretty Noose”), or utter pointlessness (why include the music video take of “Fell on Black Days” when the video itself is included in the set?).
There’s so much exemplary material stuffed inside the dodgy artwork that adorns Telephantasm (seriously, it looks like something befitting a Creed album) that the overall picture that emerges makes up for any smaller slights that can be found within. Here is a compilation that moves from strength to strength, constantly ratcheting up expectations and delivering on them. There are several points throughout the set — be it “Beyond the Wheel” or “Rusty Cage” or “Birth Ritual” or “Superunknown” — where it feels as if you have just heard the ultimate Soundgarden song, and that the band couldn’t possibly produce anything that could top what has come before. And then it does. Telephantasm is a profound argument for Soundgarden’s mastery of writing heavy rock music, where song structures are engagingly unconventional and every tune has at minimum two classic riffs. Furthermore, Telephantasm is a potent reminder that heavy music can be brutal yet intelligent, that music that’s dissonant and gnarly can achieve mainstream acceptance, and that it’s been far, far too long since most alternative/indie rock has rocked this hard so well. Whatever the reformed Soundgarden is currently cooking up is ultimately irrelevant, for Telephantasm is an astonishing document that effectively summarizes the group’s past career and subsequently confirms its status as a true legend in modern rock music.