Sound: Last year, Soundgarden released "King Animal," the band's first record since 1996. The album wasn't as strong musically as "Badmotorfinger" or "Superunknown," but it was a confident release from a group that was firmly in control of its own destiny. They might have been away for 15 years, but the musicians that recorded "King Animal" sounded unmistakably like Soundgarden.
Flash back to 1988, however, and it is apparent that Soundgarden wasn't always so musically self assured. "Screaming Life," the recently remastered compilation of the band's early EP and single releases, is a fascinating, if uneven album. Far from representing the classic sound of Soundgarden, the album presents a sonic snapshot of a group in flux.
"Screaming Life" has a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" attitude. The album is rife with genre flirtations that are decidedly un-Soundgarden. "Tears to Forget" is a 2 minute blast of hardcore punk reminiscent of "My War" era "Black Flag." "Little Joe," with its funky bassline and spoken word vocals sounds like an outtake from Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." Perhaps most bizarrely, "Fopp" is a ragged, fuzz drenched rendition of an Ohio Players number. Through the disc's frequent genre hopping, Soundgarden succeeds in showing the listener the breadth of their collective record collection. Unfortunately, breadth alone does not a coherent listening experience make. Many of the ideas that the band plays with are ultimately half-baked, derivative, or, in the case of the Ohio Players cover, just plain bad. When respite comes, it is in the form of tracks like "Hunted Down," "Entering" and "Hand of God;" staples of late-'80s Seattle rock that, while single minded, at least make for suitable head-banging material.
It would be easy to dismiss "Screaming Life" as little more than a strange curio in the band's early history, were it not for the inclusion of one standout track. In a collection otherwise characterized by oddities and single minded sludge rock, "Nothing to Say" commands the listener's attention. A progenitor of classic doom laden-epics like "4th of July," "Black Hole Sun" and "Far Beyond the Wheel," it is a tantalizing glimpse towards the band's future as alt-rock behemoths and the only moment on the album that really feels like Soundgarden. // 5
Lyrics: Today, Chris Cornell is known as one of the most powerful and distinctive frontmen in modern rock. In 1988, however, that wasn't the case. While the Chris Cornell heard on "Screaming Life" shows moments of brilliance, he often sounds like singer very to find his voice. This is something that isn't helped by the band's aforementioned tendency for random generic experimentation. Cornell's impression on David Byrne on the Talking Heads-esque "Little Joe" makes for a jarring listen, his hardcore grunt on "Tears to Forget" is underwhelming.
Yet, when the band veers into more rock orientated territory, moments there are moments where Chris Cornell as we know him today shines through. Being the undoubted highlight of the album musically, it is unsurprising that "Nothing to Say" also contains Cornell's strongest vocal moments. His screeching falsetto soars, creating an almost otherworldly vocal presence that elevates the song into classic Soundgarden territory. // 6
Overall Impression: "Screaming Life" is not a great Soundgarden album. But then, there is no real reason that it should be. Bands very rarely turn out a classic with their first release. They need to experiment, to grow musically and to work out exactly where they want to make their mark in the music world. "Screaming Life" is the sound of those embryonic experimentations put to tape. It is uneven, jarring and sometimes of questionable quality. It is also a fascinating glimpse into one of modern rock's greatest bands in their formative stages. For fans of Soundgarden, and those interested in the process of making music more generally, that alone should make it worth owning. // 6
- Alec Plowman (c) 2013