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Power Slaves

 

Audioslave: Audioslave

Epic/Interscope, 2002

Rating: 4.2

 

 

Posted: November 24, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Gather around, kids, and I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a successful, California-based rock band that seemed to be at the top of its game. But that game depended upon a very specific and delicate teamwork, a balancing of the singer's outsized personality with the contained gut-level fury of an innovative guitarist and a particularly brawny rhythm section. And alas, the high-wire act was soon grounded The front man, as his kind is wont to do, decided his talent would shine just as well without the rest of the band, and set out to record a solo album with some high-ticket guest stars. The remaining band members, meanwhile, decided to soldier on. Hoping to recreate the special alchemy they'd previously enjoyed, they enlisted the aid of a new, proven vocalist, one with a very different personality and set of songwriting skills, and possessed of built-in name recognition with the band's core audience. Early sessions were magical, re-energizing all involved. But would fans accept this new alliance? Turns out they would indeed, even if critics carped that the new band broke no new ground, made exactly the kind of hard rock one would expect from pairing singer A with band B.

So, class, what lesson can we infer from the story of Van Halen and Sammy Hagar? That's easy. Sometimes, against the odds, unlikely pairings work, if only for a little while, and even if no wheels get re-invented in the process.

Which brings us to Audioslave, the much-hyped and -anticipated pairing of former Soundgarden screamer Chris Cornell with the instrumental backbone of the former Rage Against the Machine -- guerrilla guitarist Tom Morello, bomb-dropping bassist Tim Commerford and provocateur percussionist Brad Wilk. Just as the surprisingly supple marriage of Hagar and Halen eventually crumbled, the future existence of Audioslave appears to be a tenuous proposition at best; the band has already split and re-formed once, due to conflicts between Cornell's and the Rage guys' management teams. And Cornell isn't a perfect fit as his generation's affable Hagar to former Rage firebrand Zach de la Rocha's mercurial David Lee Roth. The famously surly Cornell seems to radiate an off-putting aura of simmering antagonism at levels Eminem would find toxic -- he looks like the kind of guy whose permanent record has "Doesn't Play Well With Others" printed like letterhead at the top of every page.

This is speculation, of course (although every Cornell interview this writer had ever read paints him as prickly at best). But even if Cornell is a musical catalytic agent, fated to cause his collaborations to go supernova -- if Audioslave burns as brusquely brief as it does blindingly bright -- it'll be well worth it. Because Audioslave ranks among the most accomplished hard rock albums of the post-grunge era, a near-classic mix of thunderous riffology and dark reflection on a par with Soundgarden's seminal Superunknown.

The mixture of Cornell's yearning yowl and Rage's incendiary fireworks is, at times, precisely what fans of either would expect; "Gasoline" and "Exploder," in particular, sound like Cornell karaoke-ing his way through a couple of instrumental Battle of Los Angeles-era Rage demos. And it's also true that there's not much here lyrically that will surprise Soundgarden followers. Cornell's searing, searching lyrics don't make a whole lot of sense on their own ("I am not your autumn moon/ I am the night"), and if anything, he seems at even more of an emotional remove than usual; while "Show Me How to Live" captures the classic disaffection of Soundgarden, songs like "What You Are" and "Set It Off" feel almost generic in their lyrical content, as if written mainly to ornament the barbed-wire riffs upon which they're hung. But Cornell does throw a few monkey-wrenches into his delivery: his growly scat mimics Morello's crunchy guitar line on "Exploder," and he attempts a faux-qawwali wail, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-style, nicely broken up with a phasing, fluttering effect on "Show Me How to Live." He also revisits some of the more esoteric vocal moments of Soundgarden's last album, Down on the Upside, on "Bring' Em Back Alive," switches gears to dance-floor-funky on the refreshing "Hypnotize" (whose chorus of "Oh no don't you/ keep your good luck to yourself" is as close as the disc comes to classic Rage-style social commentary), and scrapes his throat painfully raw on "Shadow of the Sun."

But it's the remaining Audioslaves -- Morello, Commerford and Wilk -- who surprise here, albeit within the parameters of their muscular sound. As already mentioned, some tracks sound like virile Rage leftovers. But those familiar riffs prove surprisingly adaptable, working just as well as snarling slabs of post-Sabbath fury as they would seething rifle-bursts of angry agit-rock. But the three former Ragers prove equally adept at the kind of pumped-up, classic-rock-tinged testosterone workouts for which Cornell earned his rep, and they throw in enough bristling atmospherics (the coiled intro to "Set It Off" rides in on a wave of moody build-up straight out of Sabbath or Destroyer-era KISS) and metallic, fist-pumping crescendos to send the Papa Roaches of the world scurrying back to their rehearsal spaces. The disc's first four songs -- "Cochise," "Show Me How to Live," "Gasoline" and the redemptive kiss-off "What You Are" (whose angry/relieved refrain "Now I'm free from what you are" could be interpreted as a hearty "don't let the door hit your ass on the way out" to de la Rocha) -- are a virtual clinic in marauding arena-rock onslaught, whipping from air-drum workshop to singing-to-the-mirror-with-a-hairbrush-worthy intensity at whiplash clip.

Audioslave fails to gain entry to hard rock Valhalla only by virtue of three of its final four numbers; "Bring 'Em Back Alive" tries too hard to achieve the soaring metal singalong heights of the disc's first half, while "Getaway Car" and the closing "The Last Remaining Light," a pair of change-of-pace slower numbers, bog down the final ten minutes -- they should have been sequenced further apart, bookending the stomping "Light My Way" rather than following it. But these are minor quibbles. The first ten songs on Audioslave lumber and swagger with the triumphant authority and moody menace of the very best hard rock albums, and point to a bright and glorious future if the band can survive long enough to stretch its wings beyond the familiar, if expertly executed, confines of its meaty debut.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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