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February 2003 Pick of the Month

Audioslave
Artist: Audioslave
Label: Epic
Length: 14 Tracks, 65:26 minutes

In what must be one of the most anticipated collaborations of the new millennium, Chris Cornell, vocalist of former grunge heavyweights Soundgarden has teamed up with the instrumentalists of Rage Against the Machine (the powerhouse rap-core outfit that put the genre on the map) following the departure of rapper-vocalist Zack de la Rocha. The question is: do they deliver anything that stands up to the great music of their previous projects? My opinion: yes and no. 

Let’s get some things clear. RATM was a rap outfit. They weren't big on melodies. Zack did not sing (though he can hold a tune, as demonstrated on their covers album Renegades.) Cornell does not rap. Songs require singable backing to be songs. Thus, where Tom Morello (guitar), Tim Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums) could previously lay down 12 tracks on their own and let Zack add the words later (as they did with The Battle of Los Angeles album, when the first strains on band relationships were beginning to emerge) they have had to work a little harder with Cornell to get the marriage of styles right. 

The result is a solid bunch of mid-paced heavy rock songs, which are great in themselves. On initial listen though, it comes across a little lacking in variety. As track four kicks in with a very similar beat to the first three songs, one wonders whether the guys are being too careful. Maybe they just haven't quite found the chemistry yet to let loose with a little more energy and speed. I’m trying desperately to resist comparisons, but there is nothing with the pace or angry urgency of “Guerilla Radio” or “Sleep Now in the Fire” from RATM’s last original studio album, which showcased that band at its peak. The fact that track two and three end in almost the exact same way, with Cornell’s signature descending wail to fade out with the final echoing chord gives the same impression of musicians struggling to find a corporate identity and sticking with what they know. 

Make no mistake though, this hybrid of styles hasn't held them back completely. The band still lays down some very fat funk jams that could easily have a rap vocal. As he did with RATM, Tom Morello manages to eke some astonishing sounds out of his guitar, successfully mimicking the staccato chop of helicopter blades, rap scratches and a myriad of other almost indefinable sounds. In this regard, they remain innovators in their genre. With repeated listens, any problems with same beats fade away as the pumping sounds of this new rock incarnation work their way into the bones. I have found myself moshing around the room as in grunge days of yore. To hear Cornell’s searing, soulful, slightly nasal, graveled voice piercing my ears again as they did when I first spun Badmotorfinger, I’m in rock’n’roll heaven.

Speaking of heaven; to the thinking Christian listener, the most intriguing thing about Audioslave is Chris Cornell’s lyrics. Where Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics with RATM were almost always political, Cornell has always been unashamedly philosophical. However, his poetry on Audioslave belies a depth of spirit uncharacteristic of his previous work. 

On past albums, Chris Cornell has been consistently negative about Christianity, undoubtedly residue from a tumultuous Catholic upbringing. The sneering, sarcastic, anti-Christian sentiment that often permeated the Soundgarden repertoire (eg. “Holy Water”, “Fourth of July”, “Superunknown”, “Jesus Christ Pose”) and was also evident back in the days of Temple of the Dog (“Wooden Jesus”, “Your Saviour”) is gone. The Cornell I hear in Audioslave has clearly found new inspiration in a spiritual reality. He seems to have exorcised many of the demons of his childhood and rediscovered a relationship with God, long buried. Take these lyrics for example, from track twelve, “Light My Way”:

In my hour of need / On a sea of gray
On my knees I pray to you / Help me find the dawn of a dying day
Won’t you light my way / Won’t you light my way
A bullet is a man / From time to time he strays
I compare my life to this / To this I relate
And I’m willing to listen to your answers
And I’m not ashamed to tell you I need you today
So when I’m lost / or I’m tired and depraved
Or when my high bullet mind goes astray 
Won’t you light my way / Don’t save it for another day
You would be hard pressed to find a more heartfelt prayer in any church on any given Sunday, in my opinion. Such imagery is no flash in the pan either. Following the gut-wrenching opening track, “Cochise,” comes another direct, Job-like cry to God in “Show me How to Live”:
Nail in my hand / From my Creator
You gave me life / Now show me how to live
It doesn’t stop there. Read the following lyrics of track five, “Like a Stone,” listen to the almost hymn-like strains of the chorus and ask yourself whether Cornell hasn't made his peace with Jesus in some way in his heart as he looks ahead to the end of his life.
On my deathbed I will pray / To the gods and the angels
Like a pagan to anyone / who will take me to heaven
To a place I recall / I was there so long ago
The sky was bruised / The wine was bled / And there you led me on
In your house I long to be / Room by room, patiently
I’ll wait for you there / Like a stone / I’ll wait for you there alone
In such songs, we get glimpses of one who has struggled with questions and pain and emerged out of a valley clearheaded, compassionate, and seemingly on a mission to make the world a better place in his own small way; be it with a friend struggling with an addiction, or encouraging wider social justice. 
I’m not a martyr / I’m not a prophet
And I won’t preach to you / But here’s a caution
You better understand / That I won’t hold your hand
But if it helps you mend / Then I won’t stop it
Go on and save yourself / And take it out on me
(“Cochise”) 

You can make your load just a little lighter
All you got to do is share the wealth
Oh no don’t you keep your good luck to yourself
It’s time to see you got to give or you’re gonna receive
It’s time to see you got to live if you wanna believe
(“Hypnotize”) 

Musically, this last track, “Hypnotize,” is an interesting experiment in techno mimicry. It works fairly well, and remixed would make a good rave club tune. “Bring ‘em Back Alive” is perhaps the closest you’ll get to the murky lurching grunge of Soundgarden, while the final two tracks are nice bluesy ballads that close the album with the anticipation of greater things to come. 

I am inexpressibly chuffed that elements of two of my favorite bands of the 90’s are back with such a powerful musical release, and I am enthusiastic to hear how the future relationship develops. I imagine the next album will be even better. Most heartening is the evidence of Cornell’s spiritual and lyrical direction, described above. Audioslave have promised they are here to stay (for the moment at least; barring any more walkouts by Cornell, as occurred in the early stages of the collaboration) so tune in to this one, and as the striking cover image seems to suggest, feel the flames of the spirit light a fire in the desert of your life. 

Brendan Boughen 12/22/2002
 

"Supergroups", where bands are formed from members of already successful groups, have a tendency to be "super" only in name. For instance, there are still plenty of Yes and King Crimson fans tucked around the globe, but how many people still remember Asia? And there are few people who would seriously suggest that Down have ever gotten close to the brutal brilliance of Pantera or Corrosion of Conformity, or that Mad Season were a patch on Alice In Chains or Pearl Jam.

Given this trend, it is unsurprising to learn that the debut album from Audioslave, the potentially mouthwatering collaboration between Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Rage Against The Machine's Tom Morello, Timmy C and Brad Wilk, never quite reaches the stratospheric heights that the members' former bands did. However, in light of the seminal nature of Soundgarden's and Rage's past output, this is by no means a criticism. In fact, Audioslave is a frequently impressive album that is more than good enough to stand up in its own right.

Listening to Audioslave, it is apparent that the substitution of ex-Rage vocalist Zack de la Rocha for someone with a lesser political axe to grind and whose voice truly is a musical instrument, has led to the other Rage members increasing their wingspan to fly into new musical territories. "I Am the Highway" is a case in point: a beautiful, ascending track that, whisper it quietly, could almost pass for Adult-Oriented Rock, and is surely destined for prolonged residency on US radio. Elsewhere, "Hypnotize" is a bit of a shock; with its cool, dancey rhythm and turntable-scratching sounds simulated by Morello's guitar, it would not be altogether out of place on an album by a band like Radio 4. 

Fans of the more conventional Soundgarden and Rage rock sound need not worry, however, because there is still plenty of hard-edged music to choose from. Opener "Cochise," defiantly named in honour of the famed Indian chief, and "Gasoline," are two such tracks, boasting big, Led Zeppelin-styled guitar riffs, chunky rhythms, muscular vocals and stand-out choruses.

Of course, _Audioslave_ is not perfect. With fourteen tracks and a running time of over an hour, it is fair to say that there are one or two filler songs that could have been dropped without being overly missed. In addition, Cornell's lyrics occasionally descend into self-referential monotony, with him declaring that "I'm a shadow on the sun" ("Shadow On the Sun"), "I am the highway/I am the sky" ("I Am the Highway") and "I am a virus" ("Bring 'Em Back Alive").

Nevertheless, there is much to commend Audioslave and it deserves a listen, at least for curiosity's sake. If not a "super" group yet, Audioslave is certainly a "very good" one.

Vik Bansal 1/12/2003

   
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