The long-awaited Soundgarden rarities compilation has finally been announced for release in late November – Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path, a career-spanning reaping of the vaults that looks set to be everything Queen’s latest compilation, Queen Forever, should have been. So here’s a review for “Storm”, a newly-recorded version of an ancient and long-lost track and the first to be released from the new collection.
The music: Although the track was recorded earlier this year, the song itself dates back to a demo tape Soundgarden cut in 1985 before they even released their first EP. If you’ve listened to any early Soundgarden you’ll know that their Nineties alternative rock sound wasn’t fully formed by any means. In fact the music was more in line with Eighties post-punk and new wave with elements of early Seventies heavy metal sewn in as well, so they could sound like the Misfits one second, Devo the next and Black Sabbath the next after that. It’s interesting stuff, even if their songwriting skills still needed a few years to sharpen.
But anyway. This is very new Soundgarden covering very old Soundgarden. As you’d expect the post-punk sound is still there – with its guitar squawks, rumbling bass and heavy, brooding production this could have fitted easily onto Screaming Life. Also like much of early Soundgarden the structure is unconventional and often disorientating: there is a chorus here to speak of, but you might miss it in the whirling, psychedelic vortex of dark, sinister sounds present here. In that sense “Storm” is an accurate name: the drums ground the song with a consistent rock groove but the key here is the atmosphere, the thick bass and heavy chords conjuring the black clouds above with only Cornell’s aged croon cutting through the rain as the frequent spikes of guitar noise keep the listener constantly on edge.
It’s all very cool, even if it never really explodes as you might expect it to. Then again, Soundgarden made a career on dodging expectations, so it’s pretty fitting. The song it reminds me of most is “Nazi Driver” from Ultramega OK – nervy, quieter passes accentuated by brief, clattering convulsions of sound. Post-punk, you might call it, but whatever the genre it’s heavy, menacing and foreboding. Music to send you running for the hills, or at least under your bed, this is a beast about to pounce. Do I sound like a press release right now?
The lyrics: Now, here’s the thing. With my pop song reviews it’s usually pretty easy to sum up the lyrical themes in one line because pop music makes its trade on simplicity and immediacy. Rock lyrics, on the other hand, can be anything from nice and obvious to head-scratchingly complex. Soundgarden lyrics, in particular, have never been easy to bottle down into a tidy statement. Did you ever find out what “Black Hole Sun” was about? Exactly.
There aren’t even that many words here to play with, but the ones that are here are interesting. Even though this was written nearly thirty years before anything on the band’s recent comeback album King Animal, lyrically at least it feels like an extension from that record’s themes of hopelessness in the face of nature and encroaching mortality: “the storm has weakened minds of steel / the rain to capture hopeless ones.” Very bleak stuff, but typical Soundgarden: obtuse and rich in flavour, like a weirdly-shaped cake. Or something less stupid. See what I mean, though, about the power of nature juxtaposed with the futility of life? The strong-willed have fallen while the weak-willed have simply been sucked into the maelstrom. We all bow to nature in the end, I guess.
“Watch as they run faceless, faceless.” Here we’re asked to spectate upon the flight of the anonymous, possibly from a position of ill-gotten power: “all hope for those corrupt / all strength for those corrupt.” There seems to be a social connotation here, as if the storm has removed what makes us human: the identities of the masses and the souls of the wicked. “My heart comes seeking faces / but all around me is faceless.” He looks to the crowd for warmth and familiarity but all he finds is an anonymous horde running, constantly running either from or towards something.
“This fear has passed them incomplete / those words unspoken with no restraint.” Okay, this line has stymied me a little. The fear passes them incomplete… so they’re only slightly afraid? Are they supposed to be more scared? Of what? And “words unspoken with no restraint”… words not restrained from not being spoken… well, that’s a double negative, so in fact it’s words restrained from being spoken, which possibly alludes to censorship or silencing the masses, which chimes with the removal of identity connoted by the “faceless” part.
Of course, it’s up to anyone to decide what the “storm” and “rain” are metaphors for here – the crushing reality of life, perhaps, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Or even just some awesome, evil storm stirring up some havoc? This is what I love about Soundgarden lyrics: they’re pure literary theory fodder.
Verdict: Oh, definitely a 4 out of 5, and not just because I’m a fan. This is wonderful stuff here. I may also have a few words to say about Echo of Miles when it’s out because… mercy, does that look good.
Today’s double-up, by the way, is “Black Cloud” by Trapeze.