These are the best of times and the worst of times for Seattle rock. The A&R leeches and press hounds are long gone; the scene is back to relative normality — that is, lively and neighborly (even if some of the neighbors have platinum all over their walls). But the survivors are hemmed in by the freak commercial expectations generated by 1992’s Summer of Sub Pop and the dead weight of a tired, distortion-driven rock aesthetic. Grunge, at its most belabored and clichéd, is a music aptly named.
On their ’94 master blast, Super-unknown, Soundgarden blew a big, black hole through the burnt-boogie angst of heavy Muzak, managing to sound both fried and alive in the fine thunder-and-color tradition of late-period Led Zeppelin. There is some quality frenzy on Down on the Upside, but Soundgarden seem to be digging in their heels rather than kicking up dirt, relying too much on drone-y impressionism and clever (as opposed to cleaving) guitar motifs. The album is by no means a disaster. It simply lacks defining episodes of catharsis — and waffle-y lines like “I think it’s turning back around/And I think I like it” (“Dusty”) don’t count. Soundgarden are capable of tearing down walls; here, they’re just rattling windows.
Screaming Trees have always worked from a broad palette — the atomic-Nuggets guitar mannerisms of late-’60s freak rock, the existential lyric affectations and modal melodic twists of psychedelia, the brooding bluesiness of Mark Lanegan’s singing. Dust is where it all comes together, gloriously, without any hasty stitching. Traces of sitar, Mellotron and crying cello underline the broad hints of Eastern intrigue in Gary Lee Conner’s bullish guitar constructs, while Lanegan turns on the warm, baritone vocal charm and bruised country-mantra dignity that distinguished his two Sub Pop solo albums. The Trees have worked long and hard, an entire decade, to finally achieve perfection. Dust proves it was all worthwhile.