"I see expensive equipment out there," Soundgarden's singer Chris Cornell said as he eyed the photographers' gear at the Whisky on Thursday night. "That's your sign to thrash."
It was a misleading invitation. The song that followed, like most of the Seattle metal-pups' repertoire, moved at a deliberate tempo that dictated a less frenzied brand of body language. The crowd responded with a sort of slow-motion head-snapping, like repeated swings with a heavy hammer.
Cornell's little trash-the-rich injunction didn't hold much water either, because Soundgarden isn't really a rabble-rousing, ideology-heavy operation. So why has this low-speed-metal foursome become a leading force in the speed-metal scene? Chalk it up to the band's ability to give musical expression to the shapeless longing and ache of youth. The mighty throb of discontent makes this group a rewarding, if wearying, arrival.
The big revelation at the Whisky was Cornell's voice, which was infinitely more striking than on the current "Louder Than Love" album. He worked in the same high, clenched range, but he was stronger and more supple, like a cable stretched taut over the choppy instrumental sea, then loosening up and twisting into winding shapes.
Combined with the processional tempos, the effect was almost liturgical--a ritual of moody and mournful urban boys' blues that they sustained with an effort that was both concentrated and casual.
They were loose enough for play--bassist Jason Everman hit the stage floor for a while, and one big rhythmic breakdown brought a smile from bearded guitarist Kim Thayil (he looks like a character off a Hindu calendar) as he supervised a quick recovery.
While Soundgarden declined to offer high-energy release, its monolithic attack did have a purging effect, and Cornell's presence was enough to keep your attention.
On the songs where he stood at the mike and played guitar, his hair hung over his entire head so that the mike stand looked like a mop standing upside down. When his hair parted you saw a pretty, soft-featured face (did someone say Jim Morrison?) with a thoughtful, distant expression.
Soundgarden's best hook carries a widely unprintable lyric and is a crusher that Living Colour might envy. But the band also revealed roots beyond the obvious metal templates, offering a version of the Beatles' "Come Together" made queasy by a dissonant, droning riff, and stitching the Guess Who's contemptuous "American Woman" into their own ecology/imperialism lament "Hands All Over."
If the world doesn't destroy itself, Soundgarden will return to the Whisky Sunday.
LENNON TRIBUTE: A series of John Lennon tribute events are being planned for Milwaukee this spring. Sid Bernstein, who promoted Beatles' concerts at Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium, said details will be announced Monday at a Universal City press conference that will be attended by Julian Lennon and his mother, Cynthia, as well as by Paula Abdul and Rudolf Nureyev.
None of the surviving ex-Beatles, nor Lennon's second wife Yoko Ono, is expected to participate, though Bernstein said that Beatles producer George Martin has agreed to conduct an orchestra performing Lennon's music. Plans call for the events to be taped and televised at a later date on a pay-per-view basis to benefit several charitable organizations.
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale today for Motley Crue at the Forum, Feb. 12.