Soundgarden - Live At Brixton Academy, London

Grunge veterans prove they were, indeed, away too long…
Soundgarden 2013

There can’t be anyone in this room happier to be here than Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.

When it came to the disbanding of the big grunge bands of the 1990s, while Kurt Cobain and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley brutally self-imploded under the weight of depression and drugs, Soundgarden merely went out with a shrug, mutually deciding to “pursue other interests”.

And we all know about Cornell’s extra-curricular interests: Audioslave never really worked, while 2009’s ‘Scream’ album, his lambasted and ill-judged R&B collaboration with Timbaland, was tantamount to solo-career suicide.

So after releasing an album hated by fans, critics and Trent Reznor alike – the latter called ‘Scream’ “embarrassing,” and rightly so – Cornell must feel like a man reborn to be greeted with reverence by a room of mostly 30-somethings who seem more than eager to forgive him for ever uttering the words, “That bitch ain’t a part of me.”

Of course there’s more to tonight than just making up for past missteps. The band has new material from 2012 comeback album ‘King Animal’ to showcase, and they pick the record’s best bits: the slinky groove of  ‘Non-State Actor’, the spluttering ‘By Crooked Steps’, and new anthem in the making, ‘Been Away Too Long’. These numbers slot with ease between older material.

Unlike other bands of the grunge genre, who exploded as the scene went global, Soundgarden’s rise to the top was a slow burn, and the outfit’s first decade is well covered by tonight’s two-hour set.  

The band’s dark, Led Zeppelin-like stomps and hugely melodic choruses, bludgeoning listeners over Black Sabbath hot coals, always had them placed at the more metal end of the grunge spectrum. And both ‘Flower’, from 1988’s debut album ‘Ultramega OK’, and ‘Pretty Noose’, from 1996’s then-final ‘Down On The Upside’ set, sound crushingly heavy.

Drummer Matt Cameron – also of Pearl Jam (read our ‘Lightning Bolt’ LP preview here) – freewheels with the clipped percussion of opener ‘Spoonman’, and guitarist Kim Thayil shoots out spiralling riffs like laser beams all over ‘My Wave’. Ben Shepherd hulks moodily over his bass, like a sulky teenager, thickly layering on the molten sludge.

But it’s Cornell’s vocals that determine the strength of any Soundgarden performance. With a voice like shredded asphalt, he might have received some criticism for his efforts on live LP ‘Live On I-5’, but inside the Academy he’s excellent. An unhinged howl is an incessant presence during ‘Drawing Flies’ and the fried psychedelia of ‘Black Hole Sun’, while he emits a tattered wail on the gorgeously morbid ‘Burden In My Hand’.

The closing, gargantuan beast of ‘Slaves And Bulldozers’ reaches every corner of the room, eventually disintegrating into white noise and feedback, Thayil’s guitar slicing through the fuzz while Cornell shrieks as if his limbs are being torn from his body. Away for too long? Soundgarden went out with a whimper, but now they’re back with an almighty bang.

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Words: Dannii Leivers

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