Can we please let the ghosts of mid-’90s grunge die? Must they continue to haunt the earth in rock purgatory, bloating the catalogue of available titles while never actually improving on what already exists?
I have no doubt whatsoever that Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, and the host of musical cohorts that adorn Hater’s newly-released and awkwardly-titled The 2nd are incredibly talented musicians. All of them come from solid musical backgrounds, as Shepherd and Cameron are most famously Soundgarden alums, while other players on the album have worked with artists ranging from Mark Lanegan to Ministry. Not only that, but Shepherd, who is the primary songwriter, vocalist, and guitar player for Hater, is responsible for some of the best, most artistic songs in the Soundgarden catalogue, including Superunknown‘s excellent, trippy “Head Down” and the music to the ferocious “Ty Cobb” from Down on the Upside. Given such a pedigree, then, it’s easy to see why there was some sense of excitement surrounding the release of another Hater album, more than 10 years after the first.
Such excitement is sure to be dashed at the sound of the end product, however. As is so often the case with such a disappointing release, we probably should have seen the warning signs.
For one, the disc is 10 years old. These are songs that were recorded by Shepherd, Cameron, and friends in the halcyon days of 1995 when Superunknown lorded over all other rock albums with an iron fist. At that point, the stress of following up such a humongous album no doubt weighed heavily on Soundgarden’s band members, and for Shepherd and Cameron, Hater was an outlet in which they could just write and record whatever came to their head, without the fear of having to sell over a million copies to be deemed a success. The results were nothing if not spontaneous, and the sessions even yielded a couple of tracks that would end up on Down on the Upside. Once the sessions were over, however, they were forgotten and left for dead in the wake of the behemoth that was Soundgarden, never to advance past their original demo form.
Now, it’s 10 years later, and Shepherd and company are releasing those very demos as Hater’s second album. Now, given that these are demos from the mid-’90s, you can already be assured that the recording quality of The 2nd is one step just above absolute shit. Of course, The 2nd isn’t actually about recording quality, it’s about letting loose and pumping out a pile of songs, just for the hell of it. And I’m sure it was just fine as therapy. But as an album that people are going to want to listen to? Please.
Opener “Try” should be getting the album off to a rousing start, and to its credit, it tries, it really does. Even so, there’s not much you can do to salvage a song whose chorus sounds like a less-tuneful Axl Rose singing over some loose, sloppy Soundgarden riffs. In fact, Shepherd attempts a number of different vocal styles over the course of The 2nd, but they all come off as either contrived or incredibly, powerfully annoying. There’s the transformation of Shepherd’s “monster” voice into his “shrieky” voice in “Captain Bligh”, there’s the multi-tracked Iggy Pop of “Fever Saint”, and the rebel yell of “Downpour at Mt. Angel”, all of them sounding like Shepherd’s trying out a new voice for the hell of it. He doesn’t sound like he’s performing with any sort of sincerity here — he sounds like he’s doing impressions. The band ventures into psychedelia with reckless abandon on songs like “Uncontrolled” and the actually-so-odd-it’s-endearing “Zombie Hand”, yet somehow plays it too safe on the rather boring “All Good”. It’s the kind of album that goes in a million different directions, but never quite seems to know what it’s doing or why.
For some, that will be the charm of The 2nd. It’s not as though it’s complete and utter studio wankery (though some of it is) — there are actual songs to be found in the mush, and some of them even rise a shade above mediocre. Even so, Hater’s brand of rock sounds as though it was made in a garage near you, and were it not for the spectre of Soundgarden, it likely would have stayed locked away forever. And perhaps that would have been for the best.