Why the third Soundgarden album is still their best
Badmotorfinger is Soundgarden’s greatest album. There, I said it.
You done howling yet? “What about Superunknown?” You’re probably asking. But no, friends. Badmotorfinger is the perfect combination of raw aggression, intelligence and finesse. It is the dividing line, after which the band’s edges were sanded down to rounded corners. I loved their edges. I respected the cleaner, mainstream-friendly sound that Soundgarden later became known for, but it wasn’t for me. My heart lies with that gold saw blade (or whatever it is).
In 1990, I was neck-deep in a heavy metal obsession. When Riki Rachtman – in his first month hosting Headbanger’s Ball – interviewed Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil and premiered their music video for “Hands All Over,” it felt like a departure.
VIDEO: Soundgarden’s first appearance on MTV’s Headbangers Ball 1990
The music was like metal but thicker and smoother. It oozed out of my speakers. That voice – a textured wailing that commanded attention and set them apart from everyone else in rotation at the time. And they were singing about pollution. Deep. I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the vision of Chris was a major draw for this boy-crazy 15-year-old girl. The cascade of chocolate curls, frosty blue eyes and fluffy lips not yet framed with the facial hair that would become his signature look. He had a casual masculinity and detached charisma, but seemed disinterested in showcasing either of them. I don’t care if you were the hetero-est male on Earth, you were a little seduced by that man, admit it.
I bought Louder Than Love on cassette – the first album I ever owned with that ultimately-pointless parental advisory sticker. My mother didn’t even look twice at it. The songs played on a loop in my ears and in my brain. I tried to convince my metalhead friends at the time (aka “the bad kids who smoked behind the school”) to listen. They were a very leather-and-studs group. It didn’t go well.
“That’s not metal,” they screamed and batted my Walkman away.
True. It wasn’t. It was something else. The term “grunge” wasn’t widespread yet, so it was hard to categorize them. Headbanger’s was where the undefinables with long hair ended up. Primus, The Black Crowes, Soundgarden and their future genre-mates Nirvana and Pearl Jam all inhabited the ‘Ball before moving to mainstream MTV. But looking past the aesthetic differences between Soundgarden and Slayer, I was mystified that my friends couldn’t see how good this band was.
When I heard that a new Soundgarden album was coming in the fall of 1991, I nearly exploded into a million pieces. I had also moved back to my childhood hometown and reconnected with friends with less exacting musical boundaries and who appreciated Soundgarden. One of them would, years later, go on to edit this very site – Mr. Ron Hart.
That September, I went to our local Rhino Records with Ron and headed for my favorite section – the $1 cassette bin. Scanning the spines, I happened upon the just-released Badmotorfinger. This had to be a mistake. I looked around, expecting someone to appear over my shoulder and say, “Oh, this is supposed to be over there, in the ‘You Don’t Have Enough Money For These Right Now’ section.” I picked up a few other since-forgotten $1 tapes and checked out. If there is some all-powerful spirit in the universe, it was shining on me that day. Maybe it was rewarding me for doing my homework that one time or something. Back in the car, Ron and I compared hauls.
“Oooh, is that the new Soundgarden? You got it for $1? Put that shit on,” he said. We listened for the rest of the ride. It was an instant classic.
Right out of the gate, it was hard and fast with “Rusty Cage.” Something about the energy and frenetic bounce of the guitars and bass in this song reminded me of Anthrax. It had an unusual-for-Soundgarden sharpness that evoked images of getting caught on a piece of rusted metal. The only song that’s had me worried about contracting tetanus. Thanks, guys.
VIDEO: Soundgarden “Rusty Cage”
I’ve always found early Soundgarden’s relentless sludgy twilight endlessly fascinating. A chunk of Badmotorfinger’s tracks are more of that vast, comforting musical weighted blanket, with a bit of polish. The production feels more cohesive from song to song, despite different tempos, feelings, and sounds. “Outshined” goes from a dark room to a sun-soaked window and back, and it makes total sense.
The lyrics on this album’s tracks were just a stitch more poetic than previous. I knew the line “I’m looking California / And feeling Minnesota” was iconic the first time I heard it. While “Drawing Flies” focused on doubting your creative output (or difficulty outputting), the phrase “I fire a loaded mental cannon to the page,” pointed a finger at the audience – an aggressive explosion of content for our benefit. Something had to land on that page because we demanded it.
The standout track for me on Badmotorfinger was “Jesus Christ Pose.” The rumbling bass at the top. The simple, repeated guitar riff. This was one of Soundgarden’s strengths – while they had complex songs, they could just as easily take one small thing and build it into a powerful piece. Chris’ voice is keening, straining, angry – almost possessed – then restrained. The lyrics are sharpened to a fine point. “It wouldn’t pain me more to bury you rich / Than to bury you poor.” Pure rock & roll diss track.
VIDEO: Soundgarden “Jesus Christ Pose”
We also got a hint of the future of Soundgarden on Badmotorfinger. “Mind Riot” was a trippy slow-burn that didn’t wade quite as deep into the sediment as most SG songs. “Somewhere” felt like it split the difference between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, and gave us the great lyrics:
I wish to wish
And I dream to dream
I try to try
And I live to live
But I die to die
And I cry to cry
In retrospect, these two songs could have been at home on Superunknown two and a half years later, but were small enough doses here to keep me engaged.
VIDEO: Soundgarden Pinkpop Festival 1992
While I adored Screaming Life, Fopp, Ultramega OK, and Louder Than Love, looking back, they feel like steps leading up to Badmotorfinger – where the band gelled and matured. The jumps between Badmotorfinger and Superunknown and beyond wasn’t refining the band, it was evolution. They pivoted to a less-heavy and slicker sound. I can’t fault Soundgarden for evolving, it’s often a necessary move in the music industry.
But as a devotee of the Headbanger’s Ball-era SG, I bid them adieu and released them to float up to the top of the charts. 30 years later, I still hold up Badmotorfinger as Soundgarden’s greatest and one of the best rock albums ever.