Chris Cornell’s other band: An Audioslave appreciation

When news broke Thursday morning of Chris Cornell’s untimely passing at the age of 52, the first song I played was not Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman” or “Rusty Cage.” It wasn’t even Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike,” which — mildly warm take — might be better than those aforementioned three. It was “Cochise.” By the band Audioslave. And the next song I listened to? Another song by a group with the words “audio” and “slave” smushed together to form its moniker. Judge me all you like. I have no regrets.

Was Soundgarden a more consistent, influential and all-around better band than Audioslave, the group that Cornell formed in 2001 after grunge pioneers Soundgarden split in the late ’90s? Almost unquestionably. Audioslave will go down in the rock annals as Cornell’s other band — or, for Temple of the Dog purists, his other other band. The same goes for Rage Against The Machine diehards, who watched Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford step away from rap-metal and wade into the post-grunge swamp.

Over the course of six years and three albums together, Audioslave scored a handful of alt-radio hits and Grammy nominations. But they lacked the type of singular achievement that would cause any sane rock fan to argue that Cornell’s second frontman venture had surpassed his first one, or that the non-Zack de la Rocha members of Rage were making the most important music of their careers.

However, to try and quantify the cultural impact of Audioslave against one of the major pioneers of grunge music, or against the most overtly political popular rock group of the ’90s, is to miss the point of Audioslave’s music. They did not co-found a movement, or say anything too revolutionary. Audioslave made big, loud, fun, dumb rock music, with Cornell’s voice and Morello’s steadfast guitar wobble as their twin pillars. No, the goal wasn’t lofty. Yes, it succeeded with flying colors.

“We wrote songs so fast that the songs were basically telling us what we were gonna sound like,” Cornell said of Audioslave in a 2003 interview. Indeed, much of their 2002 self-titled album sounds — and I say this with love — not overly considered. The first 40 seconds of “Show Me How To Live” find Morello ripping off one of the chunkiest guitar riffs to date while Cornell hums along pleasantly and prepares to sing impossibly bombastic lyrics about feeling like a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. The chorus of “I Am The Highway” is a grandiose statement about being one’s own man, delivered in a pair of metaphors that don’t really make sense but sound powerful in Cornell’s wounded howl.

Meanwhile, here is a transcript of the full hook to “Gasoline”: “Yeah, burning that gasoline / Yeah, burning that gasoline.” The first Audioslave album is this hulking hetero mound of dynamite that sounds like it was a blast to detonate — four dudes recovering from dysfunctional groups that made them famous, holing up with Rick Rubin and designing Guitar Hero songs before Guitar Hero had been invented.

It’s worth noting that Cornell sounds terrific on the Audioslave albums. He often oscillated between a conversational warble and full-throated shriek — the latter never more hair-raising in its scope than on “Cochise,” where Cornell lets a scream echo for a good 20 seconds during the bridge. Audioslave’s most well-worn formula was letting Cornell confide some stuff in the verses and then give it an exclamation point on the hooks, and even when neither made a lick of sense, he remained mesmerizing in his commitment to that blueprint.

Witness “Doesn’t Remind Me,” a single from 2005’s Out of Exile that finds Cornell drifting through life with zero ties for fear of developing emotional attachments. In lesser hands, the ham-fisted song structure (ending each couplet with the line “…’Cause it doesn’t remind me of anything”) would read like a Puddle of Mudd B-side; instead, Cornell sells it like a fiery gospel tune, with impassioned cries in the background of the second verse to match Wilk’s tribal drums. Cornell was in his prime and lived up to his main-attraction status, even when the beats grew familiar, and especially when the songs read as ludicrous on paper.

And regardless of what Soundgarden fans think of Audioslave’s output, no Cornell remembrance is complete without “Like a Stone,” the group’s best song and a No. 1 hit on the modern rock chart. Once again employing the soft-loud-soft pendulum, the midtempo ballad best employs Cornell’s ability to slice through guitar schlock and deliver genuine emotion, this time from the perspective of someone contemplating his own mortality. The guitar solo is vintage Morello, all space-age heft and expert squealing, but the takeaway here is how defeated Cornell sounds as he romanticizes the idea of waiting for an afterlife with his true love. In the wake of his death, Cornell’s performance of “Like a Stone” feels even more affecting, the sound of a man staring down his own end with a whimper instead of a bang.

The first Audioslave album came out during my third month of high school — I was too young to appreciate Soundgarden’s rise to the mainstream, but the debut of Audioslave in late 2002 hit me at the perfect time as a teenager who loved loud, aggressive guitar music. I attended an Audioslave concert; I bought two of their three albums. Their music spoke to the part of 15-year-old me that wanted to head-bang along with some blustery rock with low stakes. Audioslave shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in retrospect. They shouldn’t be dismissed, either.

This story originally appeared on Billboard.

[photo: Getty]