Forget all that stuff you might have heard about sex-crazed groupies and luxurious L.A. mansions; the real reason most guys want to be heavymetal rock stars is because they want to make a whole lotta noise. And not just any noise, either. Heavy metal has its own particular kind of glorious thunder — a dark, droning crunch that’s almost druidic in its appeal to the adolescent psyche. Black Sabbath tapped into this primal groove with “Iron Man,” Led Zeppelin upped the ante with “Kashmir,” and now Soundgarden pushes the envelope with Louder Than Love.
Like Danzig or the Cult, Soundgarden takes its cues from metal’s new primitivism, eschewing virtuosity for the brutish efficiency of simple aggression. That’s not to say these guys don’t have chops — Chris Cornell has the sort of soaring, muscular voice Ian Astbury can only dream of, while guitarist Kim Thayil comes across like the Edge with an attitude — but they do seem more inclined to beat a riff into submission than strut their stuff by playing rings around it.
As a result, the songs on Louder Than Love are mean, lean and fighting fit. “Ugly Truth” kicks things off with a bludgeoning drumbeat topped off with an ominous squall of guitar, and the album builds from there, with Cornell’s air-raid siren voice wailing over an assortment of monolithic guitar riffs while Matt Cameron pounds his drums into the floor.
Yet as basic as the band’s musical architecture seems on the surface, there’s a surprising finesse to these arrangements. “Ugly Truth,” for instance, boasts a bridge that’s as cannily ambitious as anything in the Led Zeppelin canon, and “Hands All Over” applies swooping bass and jazzily vigorous drumming to counterbalance the static intensity of the song’s bone-simple guitar hook.
Unfortunately, Soundgarden isn’t quite as consistent on the lyrical front. Although there are some interesting ideas rumbling through the likes of “Gun” and “Ugly Truth,” much of what the band has to say is clichéd, confused or generally incomprehensible. (Then again, heavy metal isn’t exactly a breeding ground for young philosophers.)
Besides, Louder Than Love isn’t about words; it’s about sound, and even when his lyrics are as dumb as rocks — as with “Big Dumb Sex,” which boasts the stunningly sensitive chorus “I know what to do/I’m gonna fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you!” — Cornell delivers them with such full-throated intensity that they actually sound impressive. And if that ain’t the mark of a great metal album, then what is?