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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sheer Weight of Sound

Reflections on Soundgarden and Bruckner Symphonies
Devastating bass: Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden.
Photo by the Author. © 2011 by me.
"They want me to write differently. Certainly I could, but I must not."
--Anton Bruckner

"We do this basically for ourselves. People appreciate it, which is cool, but I think they appreciate that we're doing it for ourselves. We're doing it our way, and how people like it is not up to us. We like it."
--James Hetfield of Metallica

So last night my friend Rob Pantuliano and I went to Newark, NJ to see the resurrected '90s grunge band Soundgarden play the Prudential Center. For the uninitiated, Soundgarden were the loudest, and one of the heaviest bands to come out of that Seattle scene, combining unusual time signatures, shrieked vocals and a slow, sludgy, heavy sound produced by tuning the guitars and bass down to D or C, and occasionally, all the way down to a low B. They broke up in 1997, but are currently enjoying a renaissance.


Christian Thielemann conducting the first movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.

Although they wear the influence of Black Sabbath prominently on their sleeves, Soundgarden (Chris Cornell: vocals, Kim Thayil: guitars, Ben Shepherd: bass and Matt Cameron, drums) also incorporate psychedelia, jazz and experimental noise into their songs, creating a heavy, intoxicating brew that can literally massage the listener with the force of moving air: especially that you're standing right in front of the massive PA system.  Thanks to our early arrival and the fan-club tickets procured by Rob, we spent the whole night standing right in front of Mr. Shepherd's amplifier, watching the bassist's unique style of playing and being devastated by the overdrive coming through his pedal-board.


As the quartet thundered through songs from Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, I was struck by the parallel with the equally "heavy" symphonic writing of Anton Bruckner. I've been listening to a lot of Bruckner lately (mostly in prep for the Cleveland Orchestra's four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall next week) and actually played the entire Fifth Symphony on the way to Newark. (In case you're wondering, it was the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal, an excellent, and underrated performance.)

Bruckner's symphonies work on a longer, broader canvas than alternative rock songs, but both styles use similar techniques. An introduction. The theme develops. A steady rhythm is played. There is a pause. And suddenly the aural heavens open and the listener is exposed to a rolling, crushing heaviness. The song/movement rises to a climax, and then comes to a thunderous close, leaving the listener exhilarated.

The next movement of the symphony corresponds to the next song in the set--a slow adagio equals a ballad. A scherzo movement equals a fast rocker. But whether the music is played by a full symphony orchestra or by four amplified dudes from Seattle, the music has the same cathartic effect.

Soundgarden, in 1992 performing "Slaves and Bulldozers." From the DVD Badmotorvision.

Last night, Soundgarden closed their six-song encore with "Slaves and Bulldozers," a rolling, heavy 10-minute jam from the group's Badmotorfinger record. Standing in front of Ben Shepard's amplifier, the sheer weight of sound caused the air to move over me, around me, and almost through me with a pure, kinetic force. It was like standing in a rhythmic wind tunnel, hammering relentlessly at the senses. But the best part was yet to come.


When the song wound to a slow close, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell took off their guitars and put them in front of their amplifiers to generate a rolling wave of pure feedback. Ben Shepherd did the same with his bass, balancing it on the headstock in front of his Mesa Boogie bass amp, finding the aural sweet spot before pressing his foot firmly down on the overdrive pedal. The wave of sonic assault increased in ferocity.

It was like standing in bright sunshine, being drubbed by pure volume. As the toneless, thunderous, seemingly endless chord resounded in my skull, rattled my teeth and made my nose buzz and buzz (like I said, my ears were protected), the only parallel that I could think of was the climactic phrases of the last movement of a Bruckner symphony, the penultimate (and ultra-heavy) Eighth. Heavy metal. Weighty brass. What's the difference?
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.