The idea of commissioning a bunch of doom, sludge, and stoner metal bands to cover Soundgarden makes perfect sense on paper. Following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath, Flipper, and fellow Seattle icons Melvins, Soundgarden played a significant role in popularizing a slow, plodding brand of heavy music that would eventually evolve into the aforementioned constellation of sub-genres. The band may be remembered as a 1990s grunge/alternative flagship, but if we’re being precise, we can also regard classic-era staples like “Gun”, “Mailman”, “4th of July”, and “Slaves and Bulldozers” as proto-sludge anthems.
That said, a new pair of conjoined tribute albums from Magnetic Eye Records shows us that Soundgarden’s music doesn’t lend itself to being approached as a genre exercise. Of course, longtime fans who’ve listened to Soundgarden independent of their place in the mainstream could tell you as much. Unlike, say, AC/DC or Helmet—both of whom have received Magnetic Eye’s “redux” treatment in the past—Soundgarden didn’t define themselves by their limits. And no matter how much their style may have overlapped with the likes of Kyuss and Eyehategod, Soundgarden never staked their musical identity around a constrained set of musical parameters.
Of the 30 artists who appear on Superunknown (Redux) and Best of Soundgarden (Redux), many of them fall for the temptation to exaggerate the source material’s most bludgeoning qualities. Chicago doom quartet High Priest, for example, vaporize the frisky (for Soundgarden) odd-metered groove of “My Wave”. Where the original might give you a reason to put some pep in your step, this new version looms overhead like an acrid—but beautifully colored—chemical plume engulfing the atmosphere. Similarly, Cincinnati’s Valley of the Sun forego the rootsy psychedelia of Superunknown’s title track for a more heavy-handed approach.
These decisions, along with countless others across the majority of the tracks, are understandable. When Soundgarden chose to let their feet drag, they sounded—on purpose—like a band hiking through waist-high mud in boots made of lead. Thankfully, many of the artists here at least attempt to capture some of the nuances that set Soundgarden apart from day one: the penchant for texture, the mind-altering guitar interplay between Kim Thayil and late frontman Chris Cornell, bassist Ben Shepherd and founding bassist Hiro Yamamoto’s left-of-center instincts, drummer Matt Cameron’s gift for playing odd time signatures so they sounded smooth.
Right off the bat, Torino, Italy, doom trio Ufomammut hover in a state of harmonic suspension for over two minutes before launching into the circular tank-like riff that kicks-off the original Superunknown.
When Ufomammut finally start grinding into the riff, it lands with all the more impact because they’ve held back for so long. Likewise, Marissa Nadler completely guts the low end from “Fell on Black Days”. Nadler’s gypsy-styled arrangement underscores the melodiousness — and the emotional weight — of the original while introducing an exoticism that wasn’t there before. Darkher’s Jayn Maiven goes even further, transforming the density of “Like Suicide” into a synth-atmosphere soufflé that lands somewhere between Enya and Jarboe.
Similarly, Parkersburg, West Virginia quartet Horseburner emancipate “Spoonman” from its quintessential alt-rock guitar riff—at least at first, trading-in meaty guitar distortion for soft, trickling acoustics. Elsewhere, Brooklyn’s Spotlights and Brighton, England quartet Miss Lava do an admirable job of stretching to capture the mournful pastels of the intros to “Black Hole Sun” and “Burden in My Hand”, respectively. Fellow Brooklyn trio Somnuli even introduce a touch of swing to the otherwise molasses-thick “Mailman”, while Marc Urselli’s SteppenDoom do the same with “4th of July”.
Jack Harlon & The Dead Crows take what was basically a single-gear punk tune in “Kickstand” and open it up into something more dynamic. There are instances when a given song seems like it was meant to be played in a doom-metal style, even when the band takes the most predictable approach possible. Witch Mountain and Beastwars, for example, take ownership of the songs “Limo Wreck” and “The Day I Tried to Live” so effectively that you’d believe they wrote them if you didn’t know better. After a while, though, the gnashing, gargantuan-sized heaviness here starts to feel like a leash around the material—particularly since none of the drummers match Matt Cameron’s elasticity or inventiveness.
As we approach 30 years since the release of Superunknown—Soundgarden’s most commercially successful record—it doesn’t take two tribute albums to see that the group’s magic can never be replicated. For both better and worse, Superuknown (Redux) and Best of (Redux) only underscore the iconic quartet’s range. Still, Magnetic Eye and their roster of participants are to be commended here. The most rewarding moments on any tribute album come when you find yourself thinking, “I can’t tell what song this is” or “I didn’t care for that song, but I appreciate it more now thanks to this new rendition.” If you’re a Soundgarden fan, you should expect several such moments with these albums, regardless of your tolerance for doom and sludge. You might walk away as a fan of those genres as well, in spite of their limitations.