Soundgarden had their biggest success with 1994’s Superunknown, thanks in large part to its experimenting with new sounds. It’s no surprise then, that their follow-up, 1996’s Down on the Upside, continued that inventiveness. While they retained certain aspects of the sound that made them a major player in ‘90s rock - heavy metal, psychedelia, dark atmospheres - they were, in some places, toned down in favor of more melodic, organic sounds while in other places, they were explored further. The end product was another great album.
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What really sets Down on the Upside apart from its predecessors is that several songs tone down the wild psychedelic metal and aim for a more pure rock sound. That doesn’t mean the album is soft - just check out the wild guitar solo on the groovy “Rhinosaur.” However, songs like “Zero Chance” and “Switch Opens” emphasize the band’s more melodic side, to excellent effect. “Burden in My Hand,” one of their better known songs, is a good example of that more subdued sound still producing solid hard rock. You can even, in some spots, hear a transition toward Audioslave or Cornell’s solo work.
For the most part, though, Down on the Upside provided a familiar overall style for Soundgarden fans. The album opens with strong first single “Pretty Noose,” which perfectly combines a “Black Hole Sun”-like psychedelia with a forceful punch and a catchy chorus. Another fantastic single from this album is “Blow Up the Outside World.” It starts softly but gradually builds into an explosive epic. One Soundgarden epic that is often overlooked is “Tighter and Tighter,” which is somewhat reminiscent of Temple of the Dog’s mammoth “Reach Down” (though half its length). We get dark, eeriness thanks to “Applebite” and plenty of all-out energy, as evidenced by fast-paced rockers like “Never Named,” “No Attention,” and the cathartically profane “Ty Cobb.” At times, it feels as though the band is making up for the relative mellowness of a few tracks by making the hard rockers hit even harder.
A year after this album was released, Soundgarden disbanded, not reforming until 13 years later. For a while, it looked as though Down on the Upside would be their absolute swan song. Had that been the case, it would have been a great way to go out. The album may be a little tougher than previous works to get into - some may even find it a bit too long - but it’s worth the effort. Down on the Upside may be overshadowed by its predecessors, but it’s still an excellent album and a great moment in mid-’90s hard rock.