Thursday, April 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Soundgarden's History -- One Of Seattle's First And Loudest Grunge Bands Calls It Quits After 12 Years Of Setting The Pace For Alternative Rock

Seattle Times Staff Critic

The announcement was terse and unexpected.

"After twelve years the members of Soundgarden have amicably and mutually decided to disband to pursue other interests. There is no word at this time on any of the members' future plans."

It was issued jointly yesterday by Susan Silver Management - headed by member Chris Cornell's wife - and the band's label, A&M.

Thus ended the career of the first of the Seattle grunge bands to land a major label contract and the first to make a splash internationally, years before Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Although the abrupt ending came as a surprise, it was no secret there were problems within the band. Just last month bassist Ben Shepherd announced he had become a permanent member of Seattle band Devilhead. Silver's office denied the story, but Shepherd stuck to it, and played with Devilhead at a Moe show.

Shepherd reportedly walked off the stage at Soundgarden's last performance, in Honolulu in late December, and flew back to Seattle on a separate plane.

Soundgarden's last Seattle shows were Dec. 17 and 18 in Mercer Arena. They had been postponed a week because lead singer Cornell was said to be suffering from laryngitis. But a source close to the band said he actually postponed the shows because of in-fighting within the band. Whatever the cause for the delay, the shows turned out to be powerful and aggressive, with Cornell in apparently good spirits.

Last year saw the release of Soundgarden's platinum "Down on the Upside" album, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard chart and yielded the hits "Pretty Noose" - which was nominated for a Grammy - "Burden in My Hand" and "Blow Up the Outside World." The band headlined the 1996 Lollapalooza tour and also enjoyed a successful world tour, including dates in Europe, Japan and Australia.

Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil - the heart and soul of Soundgarden - reportedly met within the last week and decided that internal conflicts and other pressures on the band, including touring, which Thayil begrudgingly endured, had become too much. They had accomplished all they had set out to do, they decided.

Cornell - then a drummer - Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto formed Soundgarden in 1984. The band took its name from an artwork that makes music when the wild blows, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grounds on the shore of Lake Washington, near Magnuson Park.

At their early shows, in such venues as the Gorilla Gardens in the International District and WREX (now the Vogue), Cornell tried to play drums and sing at the same time, but it didn't work. Drummer Scott Sundquist joined the band, and Cornell became lead singer.

Still only 20 years old, Cornell was serious about the music, and so was Thayil - who has never gotten the recognition he deserves, in part because he disdains flashy solos.

The band's first recordings were on the 1986 compilation albums "Deep Six" and "Sub Pop 100." Signed to Sub Pop, the band released its first single, "Hunted Down," and debut album, "Screaming Life," in 1987.

The following year Soundgarden was signed by A&M, but first released an album, "Ultramega OK," on its favorite indie label, SST.

Soundgarden's A&M debut, "Louder Than Love," was released in September 1989, and brought international attention to the Seattle music scene.

The band went through a series of bassists and drummers before settling into its final lineup, including Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron.

Through the early 1990s, the band grew in popularity and developed its sound into a hybrid of grunge and metal. Through tours with such bands as Guns N' Roses and Skid Row, as well as the second Lollapalooza tour in 1992, Soundgarden became one of the top American bands.

It reached its commercial peak in 1994 with the album "Superunknown" which, thanks largely to a Top Ten hit, the uncharacteristically mellow "Black Hole Sun," sold more than 5 million copies.

Popularity seemed to hamper the band somewhat. Cornell, a demonstrative performer in his early days, became stoic on stage, barely moving from the microphone as he sang his increasingly more aggressive songs and played rhythm guitar. Even though the band appeared to eagerly reach for stardom, it didn't seem to enjoy getting it. That tension has been evident in recent years.

Of all the band members, Cornell seems the most likely to forge a strong post-Soundgarden career. As a solo artist, or with a new band, he could indulge his penchant for both hard-rock and melodic songs.

Thayil is uncomfortable in the spotlight but lives to play guitar and likely will end up in a Seattle band, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Cameron is active in the local scene and has sat in with a number of bands. It wouldn't be surprising to see him become the first ex-Soundgarden member to show up again on local stages, perhaps as a member of an already established group.

Soundgarden's demise comes at a time when the band was pumping new life into metal music, virtually single-handedly keeping the genre alive. Now it is left largely to Metallica, a great band but not an adventuresome one. After Soundgarden, the death of metal can't be far behind.

The only bright spot in Soundgarden's end is the hoped-for continuation of the careers of Cornell and Thayil, who both have the talent to keep on making substantial contributions to rock 'n' roll.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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