Album Review: Soundgarden, “Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path”
Words By: Gerrod Harris
Release Date: November 24th, 2014, via Republic Records
Soundgarden’s newest release, Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path, is a collection spanning the band’s entire career. While not a greatest hits nor a brand new album, Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path acts as their first album since their return to music with 2012’s King Animal, and looks to give Soundgarden fans a peak behind the curtain while delivering some great songs.
The album is divided into three sections: originals, consisting of rare B-sides and two new songs; covers ranging from The Rolling Stones to The Stooges; and a third sections titled “Oddities” which features demos and alternate mixes as well as some older, unreleased songs. Guitarist Kim Thayil selected the tracks which would form this collection, stating, “As album sets go, this one has been fun to collect and compile over the decades. I personally may have referenced this project a number of times over the years, going back almost twenty of them to the mid-nineties!”
Before digging into all the older, rarities, it may be good to look at the two new songs: “Storm” and “Kristi”. “Storm” is the only song on the album which is completely new as it was written and recorded earlier in 2014. The song was released earlier in October along with the news of this box set, and immediately received mixed reviews. Many fans liked it, whereas others did not, and compared it to U2. Although I don’t hear any influence from U2 in the song, it’s also not up to my high standard I have for Soundgarden. That being said, by any means, it is still a great song, just not as great as a diehard fan like myself would hope for. The song plays around with combining very dissonant tones along with softer, almost calming elements, but as the song progresses, it builds up into something much greater than how it starts: Chris Cornell’s voice becomes more powerful, singing over dark chords with Thayil delivering a signature solo underneath it all, adding a welcomed busyness to the track. As I write this and the song finishes I find that it is better than I originally thought, with the middle and end sections being much stronger than the weaker beginning.
The next “new” song, “Kristi” is only somewhat new. It was written and a demo was recorded in 1995/’96 during the sessions which would create their masterpiece, Down On The Upside. “Kristi” was never released and has recently revitalised, making their, as Thayil calls it, “unfinished gem from the sessions” complete. The song sounds like something I would expect to be released on Down On The Upside. It’s incredibly dark, with the edgy, distorted guitar, highly dissonant bass line from Ben Sheppard, Matt Cameron’s pulsating, almost tribal drums combined with Cornell’s voice, which starts off soft, even sorrowful, but develops into his roar we all know and love. The melancholy textures and emotions behind the bands performance on “Kristi” captures the band in a moment in time when they were at their highest, while simultaneously tearing apart at the seams, heading into a descant which would break up the band for fourteen years. The song sounds frantic and frustrated while full of angst, demanding to be isolated and at the same time almost desperate to be saved. All these emotions are conveyed through how masterfully each musician plays, and how they manage to make all the parts of their composition fit so perfectly. “Kristi” is a must listen to.
The first segment of the album, the originals, is a collection of rare B-sides. Some were only released along with a limited single, whereas others were only distributed in select countries. This selection of songs ranges from their very earliest recorded work in the late 80’s to their eventual split in 1997. As the songs progress, you can almost pinpoint which part of their career they were at, which I find to be quite fascinating. Traditionally, the term “B-Side” is reserved for songs which are not at the level of the rest of the album, but are still too good to just throw away, so they are often released purely for the enjoyment of their biggest fans who are not satisfied with only the hit singles. Although many of the songs on this disc are far better than others, there isn’t a bad song here. Many are on par with the album associated with their release, especially on those which sound to be in the pre-Bad Motor Finger era (before 1991). Those which sound to written and recorded between 1991-1996 are far better than their earlier ones; just like the rest of Soundgarden’s albums, these B-sides are far more refined and focused, and much more enjoyable to listen to. That being said, I can understand why those particular songs are considered as B-sides as Bad Motor Finger, Superunknown, and Down On The Upside are masterpieces, and these B-sides are very good, but not quite on the same level as the rest of their work. One thing about this selection is that it is certainly grungey! In every sense of the word, this is Soundgarden staying true to their Seattle roots and is easily the dirtiest, slow rocking sludge rock album in years. Some of the noteworthy songs in this segment (along with “Storm” and “Kristi” as mentioned above) would be the punk infused “Bleed Together”, the classic “Birth Ritual”, the rocking “Black Rain”, the softer “Blind Dogs” and a new personal favorite “Kyle Petty, Son Of Richard”. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the style needs to check out the originals segment of Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path. The big Soundgarden fans will love this treasure trove or rare and unreleased music from all eras of the band’s career, while even the most casual Soundgarden fans will find many tracks which they will love.
Their covers, much like the B-sides, become better and better the more recent they were written, further displaying the band’s growth. Out of all the bands who often perform covers, Soundgarden stands out amongst them for two reasons. Firstly, they seem to cover one of the widest ranges of genres. To list a few, this segment features “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” originally by Sly And The Family Stone, “Waiting For The Sun” by The Doors, and “Smokestack Lightning” by Holwin’ Wolf. That’s 70’s funk, 60’s psychedelia, and 50’s blues along with other songs which would be classified as classic rock, metal, hard rock, and grunge. Secondly, they make each song their own. Often these songs feature very minor similarities from the original, following the form, lyrics and chords, but are played with extended parts and the edgy signature Soundgarden texture you would expect. Their renditions of The Beatles “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey” and “Come Together” or The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” are almost unrecognisable at a first listen to, but are well done nonetheless. The exception to this would be their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void”, where Thayil is able to recreate Tony Iommi’s guitar style, while making it even heavier, and Cornell channels his best Ozzy impression, sounding almost identical. It’s difficult to choose a select few songs as this disc’s highlights as each cover brings something great to the table. Including all the songs stated above, their cover of Hendrix’s “Can You See Me” and their live version of Iggy And The Stooges’ “Search And Destroy” stand out among a very strong set of songs. I found this section of Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path to be a great deal of fun to listen to. All the covers are excellently performed, giving both a taste of Soundgarden, and that of whose material they chose to cover. It often provides a very different approach to original songs which I (for a majority of them) am very familiar with and consider myself a fan of. It’s interesting to listen to, and sounds phenomenal. As much as I loved the first portion of the album, this section is much more accessible for those who consider themselves to like Soundgarden, as opposed to those who love Soundgarden.
The third and final section, titled as oddities, kicks off with the unreleased recording of “Twin Towers”. This instrumental track is one of the few Soundgarden tracks to be written solely by drummer Matt Cameron, and features a lengthy, intense guitar solo likely played by Thayil. The first half of this disc is all previously unreleased tracks throughout their career; although similar to the first disc of B-sides, these songs have never appeared on anything released to the public. The second half consists of remixes of various songs from their previous albums. The unreleased originals are nearly all instrumental tracks (with the exceptions of “Black Days III” and “Karaoke”), but unfortunately the momentum set by “Twin Towers” is not followed up for some time. It isn’t until the mellow “Night Surf” and the funky “A Splice Of Space Jam” that this segment picks up speed again. “Black Days III” and “Karaoke” are both exceptional, and although still in the rough demo stage, both show the potential to be much more. As I mentioned already, the second half consists of remixes of previously released songs. I myself am not a fan of remixes in general and this unfortunately this is not an exception to that. This third segment was a little disappointing. As much as it kills me to say that, between the first two segments, I was expecting a much stronger closing disc. The third disc with the exception of the few songs listed above, is not all that exciting. Many of the originals are just not that interesting, and I would never willingly choose to listen to the remixes while I have the ability to listen to the original recording.
Overall, Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path is great. The first two sections definitely outweigh the disappointment I felt with the oddities section. This collection of unreleased and rare material is a real treat to listen to, and gave the band a whole new set of songs from different eras in their career. The album has done far more than simply unearth a bunch of unheard recordings; this collection perfectly chronicles Soundgarden’s rise to grunge gods, and their eventual, incredibly unfortunate, and untimely end. As much as I loved the album, their more casual audience may not fully appreciate the rougher, earlier recordings and may feel the need to sift through it, but to a huge fan like myself, the three and a half hour long, fifty song collection which is Echo Of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across The Path is a goldmine.
Disc One: Originals
1: Sub Pop Rock City
2: Toy Box
4: Fresh Deadly Roses
5: HIV Baby
6: Cold Bitch
7: Show Me
8: She’s A Politician
9: Birth Ritual
10: She Likes Surprises
11: Kyle Petty, Son Of Richard
12: Exit Stonehenge
13: Blind Dogs
14: Bleed Together
15: Black Rain
16: Live To Rise
Disc Two: Covers
1: Swallow My Pride (By Green River)
2: Smokestack Lightning (By Howlin’ Wolf)
3: Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey (By The Beatles)
4: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) (By Sly And The Family Stone)
5: Come Together (By The Beatles)
6: Stray Cat Blues (By The Rolling Stones)
7: Into The Void (By Black Sabbath)
8: Girl U Want (By Devo)
9: Touch Me (By Fancy)
10: Can You See Me (By Jimi Hendrix)
11: Homicidal Suicidal (By Budgie)
12: I Can’t Give You Anything (By The Ramones)
13: I Don’t Care About You (By Fear)
14: Waiting For The Sun (By The Doors)
15: Search And Destroy (By The Stooges)
16: Big Bottom (By Spinal Tap)
17: Earache My Eye (By Cheech And Chong)
Disc Three: Oddities
1: Twin Towers
2: Jerry Garcia’s Finger
4: Night Surf
5: A Slice Of Space Jam
6: The Telephantasm
7: Black Days III
10: Big Dumb Sex
14: The Telephansasm
15: One Minute Of Silence