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Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003

The song remains the same . . . sorta

Superknown alterna-rockets pine for good old teen spirit

Special to The Japan Times

2001 marked the 10th anniversary of the release of "Nevermind," the album that broke alternative rock on non-college radio and MTV. Owing to disagreements among the interests that control the Nirvana legacy, the anticipated career-survey box set was never released. Instead, a single-disc greatest hits album came out last fall, more than a year behind schedule. Ultimately, it was compromised by the length -- less than an hour -- and the inclusion of only one new song, "You Know You're Right," which was the last thing Kurt Cobain recorded before he killed himself in April 1994.

News photo
Audioslave (above), featuring Chris Cornell, Jan. 30, and Zwan (below), fronted by Billy Gorgan, Feb. 1, both playing their Japan debuts at Zepp Tokyo. TEPPEI PHOTOS
News photo

In terms of enriching Nirvana's legacy, the album is worthless. It's simply a half-hearted marketing ploy to sell the band to a new generation of headbangers, who already think Creed smells enough like teen spirit.

Even less likely to benefit from the anniversary are the so-called alternative acts that rode Nirvana's coattails to stardom. Lollapalooza alumni like Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots have already hit a brick wall of drug overdoses and audience apathy. The only one still playing arenas on a regular basis is Pearl Jam, and you don't need any further proof of the irrelevance of alternative hard rock than the fact that PJ's artistic integrity and anti-rock star demeanor seem fuddy-duddy in an environment where groups like The Strokes and The Vines positively embrace their celebrity.

But alterna-rockers have to eat, and 10 years after their heyday if they can exploit past reputations for edginess or whatever with new projects that are no longer even remotely alternative, they will. Coincidently, two of these projects, Soundgarden and Zwan, landed on these shores last week.

Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden, was never an iconoclast like Cobain or the flanneled flailers who would form Pearl Jam, but with the help of guitarist Kim Thayil he created a brand of hard rock that had the muscle of metal without metal's self-conscious posturing. The band's 1994 masterpiece, "Superunknown," remains the high-water mark for the Seattle sound. It may not have provided the shock of the new that "Nevermind" delivered three years earlier, but nine years later it remains a more consistently engaging record.

As with many bands who produce something perfect ("Superunknown" was also a huge seller), Soundgarden couldn't survive their success, and they disbanded after producing a lackluster followup. Having somehow gotten the idea that he had a future as a singer-songwriter, Cornell embarked on a solo career that proved equally mediocre. It was therefore hardly surprising when he accepted an invitation to replace Zach de la Rocha as the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine.

The combination was an A&R person's wet dream, but to those alive to the differences between de la Rocha and Cornell, it seemed less than fortuitous. Cornell, a classic metal belter, was being dropped into a band whose passionate attack was directly related to political ideas that were considered larger than the music.

Last Thursday, the group, renamed Audioslave, made their sold-out Japan debut at Zepp Tokyo with a perfunctory hourlong set culled from their eponymous major label debut album. Rage was a band that went out of its way to avoid the middle ground, whether politically or musically. Audioslave seems stuck there. Without the hip-hop fury that de la Rocha brought to the band, Rage is simply a great funk-metal trio. Similarly, minus Thayil's psychedelic predilections, Soundgarden might have simply been the ultimate Led Zeppelin tribute band.

In concert, this kind of simplicity can be very exciting, but Audioslave's metal barrage never came across as anything other than bombast, and what's more, somebody else's bombast. On the album, the lead cut, "Cochise," sounds uncomfortably similar to Zep's "Whole Lotta Love." In concert, it sounded exactly like it.

The desperation to come up with something distinctive was evident in the enormous number of effects that Tom Morello used. Though a talented guitarist, Morello was forced by Cornell's limited melodic palette to create excitement, but the riffs he offered up had already become standard issue by the time Ozzy Osbourne lost his taste for bat flesh.

Everything about the show demonstrated a need to appear hard, and the audience cheered every macho, driving gesture: the pumping fists, the stomping around the stage, Cornell's mike stand twirling. Soundgarden's metal appealed to people who normally didn't care for metal because unlike most hard rock of the '80s it wasn't inspired by the desire to show off. And Rage Against the Machine, as befit their name, channeled de la Rocha's hyperactive political engagement into the most exciting performance style of any hard rock band since, well, Nirvana. Audioslave seemed to have nothing to rock for but its collective reputation, and when the hour was up, the audience left peacefully, understanding that the band wasn't really capable of anything more.

Two days later at the same venue, another new band whose roots are in '90s alternative rock made its Japan debut. However, Zwan doesn't have to force its different components to fit something new, since the only creative component is Billy Corgan. In fact, the most curious thing about the band is that it's a "band" in the first place. Everyone knows that Corgan was the Smashing Pumpkins. Why does he still insist on hiding his megalomania behind the guise of a group?

The Pumpkins represented a compromise between Corgan's first love, '80s goth rock, and the newer, hipper guitar rock of the '90s. What resulted was closer in feeling to '70s progressive rock, and the band's first album was overshadowed by the much more direct "Nevermind," which benefited from the same producer and was released at about the same time. Corgan then came out with the recognizably harder, more melodic "Siamese Dream" in 1993, and became the self-appointed prince of alternative.

Corgan's work has always been more calculated than inspired, and Zwan, though on the surface less ambitious than the Pumpkins, is equally idea-driven. The lineup seems to be as much of a statement as the music is. Jimmy Chamberlin of the Pumpkins remains behind Corgan on the drums, but the other members sport impressive indie-alternative pedigrees. Guitarist Matt Sweeney was the leader of the shock-rock band Chavez, one of the hottest live acts on the New York club scene in the mid-'90s, and second guitarist David Pajo started out in the Louisville art rock band Slint before earning his post-rock degree in Tortoise. Bassist Paz Lenchantin comes with letters of recommendation from A Perfect Circle, the side project of prog-metal monster Maynard Keenan of Tool.

Wonderful credentials, and basically meaningless since it's Corgan's show and he doesn't let his partners' wide range of styles interfere with his agenda. The band's major label album, "Mary Star of the Sea," is an attempt to re-create the sound and configuration that made "Siamese Dream" one of the most influential records of the '90s. Pajo and Sweeney are sidemen (Corgan allowed the former to play one solo during the concert, the latter none), and Lenchantin is a woman, just like the Pumpkins' bassist D'Arcy Wretzky.

Because "Mary Star of the Sea" was released only three days before the concert, the songs weren't greeted with cheers of recognition, and except for the obvious point that some were ballads and some were rockers, it was difficult to tell one from another. Just as Audioslave's metal overkill masked a lack of inspiration, Corgan's skillful blend of jangly guitar and vocal harmonies made one disregard, at least temporarily, the fact that his new songs have no memorable hooks. One extracted pleasure from little things -- Chamberlin's understated drumming in "Settle Down," Lenchantin's lyrical violin playing on "Of a Broken Heart" -- without getting excited by the concert as a whole. Even the alterna-rock version of the Association's 1960s MOR hit "Never My Love," which at least qualifies as a novelty, felt tentative.

And humorless. The main problem with alternative hard rock was always its seriousness; all that youthful angst, all that staring into the abyss. Both Cornell and Corgan have lightened up to a certain extent, but old habits die hard, especially when you're still chasing major labels.

This thought occurred to me during the Audioslave show, when I saw a kid wearing a T-shirt that read "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die," the working title of the Nirvana album that later became "In Utero." Kurt Cobain, of course, was one of the few who really did stare into the abyss, and while the title was meant to be a joke about rock's self-destructive image, it turned out to be terribly prescient in his case. It's a joke nobody ever got.

Zwan play Feb. 5, at 7 p.m., Club Diamond Hall, Nagoya; Feb. 6 at 7 p.m., Shinjuku Liquid Room. Tickets 6,300 yen. For more information, call Creativeman at (03) 5466-0777.

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