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Today We Fall On Black Days: Chris Cornell, 1964-2017

By Petr Knava | Music | May 18, 2017 |

By Petr Knava | Music | May 18, 2017 |

I heard a noise from across the water, a soulful and powerful scream made of pure grit and born under perennially overcast skies. It was a scream that rang out louder than most, a noise that came to define a generation; and yesterday it was silenced.

Chris Cornell, best known as the singer of Soundgarden, died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 17th, 2017. He was 52.

He died shortly after playing his last gig.

Christopher John Boyle, born in the summer of 1964 and later going by the name Chris Cornell, was a musician. He could play a mean rhythm guitar but it was his voice that made him special. Suffering from depression in his teenage years, Cornell would find that music could prove an effective outlet and emotional balm.

There is a sound that emanated out of America’s Pacific Northwest nigh on three decades ago that turned things upside down. It was a wounded, guttural growl. Some people would call it grunge and they would apply that label to any number of bands—many of which would never have otherwise been comparable. A great many of who appeared on the scene only to imitate.

Not so Chris Cornell’s Soundgarden, who would come to be one of the most imitated.

Soundgarden were angry, they were heavy, and they were vital. Just like Cornell’s beloved Beatles, his was a band that would shake the foundations of popular music. Ostensibly a revolt against the over-produced guitar antics of the late 1980’s, the grunge scene of the 90’s featured many bands who in actuality shared some fundamental DNA with the opulent dinosaurs they were apparently put on this earth to slay. Soundgarden, though a lot darker and de-tuned and less flash than what came before, were not shy of displays of guitar wizardry. Indeed much more than their contemporaries Nirvana—the odd ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ aside—the guitar riff featured as a much more prominent pillar in Soundgarden’s music.

The other being, of course, Cornell’s incredible four octave vocal. Here was a man who could croon one minute, and strip paint off walls the next. There are not many singers of his era who could challenge Chris Cornell for sheer power and versatility. His was not a short-lived talent either. Audioslave, Cornell’s ill-fated 2000’s team-up with the musicians from Rage Against The Machine, may not have produced material comparable to his work with Soundgarden, but the singer’s ability never dimmed. One listen through to ‘Shadow On The Sun’ from Audioslave’s debut is proof enough of that. Come for the mournful verses; stay for the explosive chorus; feel the earth shake in the extended, super-heavy coda where Cornell absolutely shreds his vocal chords to produce a sound that is almost inhuman.

Soundgarden would break up in the latter half of the 90’s. Reunions and gigs would follow, and though they performed with verve and wrote decent new material, the band’s destiny was to forever be associated with grunge. Their material was always too inventive and too alive to sit comfortably in one box, but Seattle in the early 1990’s is fundamentally where their place in the grand narrative is.

Ever the restless creative spirit, Chris Cornell would go on to a successful if critically mixed solo career after Audioslave—including a one-off stint as a James Bond theme-writer—but if he had so chosen to he could have spent his days resting comfortably on his laurels, for he had make his mark and assured his place in music history long ago. Soulful, raw like an exposed nerve, and as powerful as dynamite, that voice will ring out in eternity.

Rest in peace, Chris Cornell, and thank you.


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.