Here’s the problem with the new album from Audioslave, Chris Cornell’s collaboration with three former members of Rage Against the Machine: It sounds like arithmetic. A + B = C. If you ignore the vocals, it could be a collection of scratch demos for Rage’s Evil Empire; if you’re drunk, you might think that Kim Thayil finally persuaded the other guys in Soundgarden to make an experimental album about robots. There is no blending of styles,and there is no collision of aesthetics. It doesn’t feel the least bit organic.
Here, then, is the solution: Realize that this is not a problem.We’ve been conditioned to believe that good records are the product of artistic alchemy–musicians joining forces to produce something greater than themselves. This is not always true. Sometimes great records result from marriages of convenience–like when three radical dudes find themselves short one frontman and recruit a Pacific Northwest pretty boy with a boss throat to howl over their chunk-style riffology.
Granted, Audioslave aren’t perfect. For one thing, they’ve got one of the dumbest band names in recent rock history–the far cooler moniker “Civilian” was abandoned at the 11th hour. More important, the sense of tension former Rage singer Zack de la Rocha brought to the table is gone; his bark had a way of making every Rage song feel knuckle-bitingly tense, something Cornell couldn’t accomplish even if he sang about Mumia, Chiapas, or bulls on parade (which he doesn’t). And Audioslave’s music, a sort of 21st-century boogie metal, never reaches critical classic-rock mass the way Soundgarden’s did. But there’s also some addition by subtraction here: Sometimes Rage tried so hard to be serious that they were inadvertently hilarious, and sometimes Soundgarden were so preoccupied with being substantial that they were accidentally boring. Audioslave sell no larger context, no high-minded pretension. They just want to rock you into peaceful submission,and they are successful about 70 percent of the time.
Guitar virtuosity may be dead, and it’s certainly unfashionable. But hear this, people: The guitar-playing on this record is blow-off-your-fucking-skull-with-a-ground-to-air-missile incredible. Axe kicker Tom Morello apparently concluded that the greatest music in the world would be created by a volatile fusion of Steve Vai, Buckethead, two guys from Thin Lizzy, and an Intellivision game console, because that’s exactly what he sounds like on “Set It Off.”
Cornell, meanwhile, still has the strongest rock voice in existence, and it’s really too bad he wasn’t born ten years earlier–he could have destroyed people as the frontman for Journey, and I’d give up half a week’s pay to hear him cover “Any Way You Want It” at a karaoke bar. But his lyrics remain impenetrable.
Audioslave includes a number called “Shadow of the Sun,” which is weirdly reminiscent of “Black Hole Sun,” which makes me think somebody should give Cornell a telescope for Christmas. “Show Me How To Live,” however, is an intriguing conversation between Cornell and (possibly) God, nicely augmented by Morello’s Creatures of the Night monster plod. “Like a Stone” is technically simplistic, but the chorus packs enough Temple of the Dog-ish beauty to make you want to run out and rent Singles.
This may be the only album Audioslave generate as a unit–Cornell quit, then rejoined the band a few months before the record was released, which doesn’t bode well for the project’s long-term prospects. But it’ll be a shame if this odd coupling peters out. Seldom has a bad idea produced such badass music.