Audioslave, by Audioslave

22-audioslave

Released November 19, 2002

69 min, 26 sec

In retrospect, Audioslave was pretty much a weird intermission for both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine – something that probably shouldn’t have happened, but happened anyway, and wasn’t really all that bad when it was happening.

Now, for the record, I love Audioslave. I still have all three albums, and I was absolutely devastated when they broke up. But I have no delusions about them – this was a band that existed for six years, was active in the public eye for only four of those years, and barely had any time to grow into their own sound before abruptly breaking up back into its component parts. That doesn’t bode well for building a legacy, and Audioslave is mostly forgotten because of it, when they’re not being mocked for existing.

Audioslave really does sound like the fifth Rage Against the Machine album featuring Chris Cornell. When your instrumentalists are all sourced from the same band that had broken up less than two years before, however, you need to be understanding and cut them some slack. Of course the addition of a new vocalist isn’t going to result in a brand new sound. It’s going to take a few years, a few albums, to find out what can be changed, to find out how to craft a sound that isn’t Soundgarden with more melody or Rage Against the Machine with less political rapping, but is uniquely Audioslave. Out of Exile came really, really damn close – Revelations was right there. But then they broke up, so all of it went out the window anyway.

That wasn’t even the first time the band faced a breakup – they briefly broke up in 2002, before their debut album was even released, because of conflicts between their management firms. That’s what happens when you unite parties from two bands that have just experienced rough breakups – the new band doesn’t do any better. They solved their problems, however, by ditching their previous management and sharing management by The Firm, solidifying them as a new entity, setting them on the path to escape the shadows of Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine.

Escape isn’t easy. As I mentioned above, this album is very much covered in the characteristic heavy rock/metal sound that defined Rage Against the Machine, with Tom Morello’s iconic guitar noises that shouldn’t be possible, Tim Commerford’s equally distinctive basslines, and Brad Wilk’s thundering, unwavering drums. Chris Cornell brought his ridiculous range to the equation, consciously avoiding any sort of political themes with his lyrics, in an aggressive attempt to help the band distinguish itself, instead focusing on personal struggle as the album’s primary theme. The band didn’t even touch their collective back catalogue during the initial tours to promote Audioslave.

In another attempt to create a distinct brand for Audioslave right off the bat, the band enlisted Storm Thorgerson to design the album’s cover, and, in the process, the band’s iconic flame logo. A gigantic 3D render of the logo was digitally placed into a photograph of the volcanic island Lanzarote, part of the Canary Islands, as Thorgerson was reminded of volcanoes when listening to the band’s sound. The logo remained an integral part of the band’s graphic design up through their breakup, appearing on the cover of 2006’s Revelations as well.

There were still problems, of course. Cornell’s voice, though always having a distinctive rasp to it, sounds absolutely horrible on many of these tracks, particularly whenever he needs to hold out a particularly rough note. He noted in interviews that he’d been drinking and smoking to excess during the album’s recording, spiraling downward in his personal life. Before Out of Exile was recorded, he decided to get clean, which did wonders for his voice when it came time to lay down vocals for the next album.

As mentioned above, Morello, Commerford, and Wilk frequently demonstrated that they had no idea how to differentiate from Rage Against the Machine on many of the album’s tracks, which brought on criticism and mockery upon the album’s release. Notable exceptions to this include “Like a Stone” and “Getaway Car,” the latter of which invokes latter-era Soundgarden instead. “Like a Stone” proved to be a breakout hit, allowing the album to be quite successful despite the legion of detractors.

Even setting aside the above songs, Audioslave provided hints that the band would be able to escape the patented Rage Against the Machine sound, with slower jams like “Shadow on the Sun” blending both bands’ musical styles into something more distinct. Indeed, the band really shone in the slower tracks on Audioslave, even when they sounded like Rage slowed down. The songs show a promise, a promise to expand and change into something new, which they would deliver on with Out of Exile in 2005.

Audioslave‘s legacy mainly lives on through Chris Cornell, who frequently drew from the album (as well as Out of Exile and Revelations) during his solo tours in 2008 and 2011, following the band’s breakup. Particular staples include “Like a Stone” and “I Am the Highway,” which are more suited to Cornell’s acoustic shows than most other Audioslave tracks. Rage Against the Machine has not touched Audioslave’s catalogue following their 2007 reunion; Soundgarden similarly avoided covering the band upon their 2010 reunion. Even Tom Morello ignores Audioslave in his solo shows, though this is more to do with Morello’s political themes in his own music instead of any sort of grudge against the band.

Audioslave, standing on its own, is a perfectly serviceable rock album, an intriguing project uniting musicians that one wouldn’t think would ever cross paths otherwise.

In the greater context of Audioslave, the band, it is a starting point and an essential stepping stone to the greatness that Out of Exile would bring.

In the careers of its members, particularly Morello and Cornell, it is a footnote. An interesting one, one that would be a major player in my own musical education, but a footnote nonetheless.

A couple of miscellaneous notes:

– “Give” is sourced from a bonus website that was only accessible by inserting the Audioslave CD into a computer and opening it, presenting a link to the song and a few other bonuses, such as interviews and photos.  This is a product of the CD being an “Enhanced CD,” a selling point that first came around in the 1990s as the Internet picked up steam, where bands would include multimedia elements on their CDs to entice people into buying the actual CDs, instead of merely pirating the albums.  Did it work?  No.  But it provided some cool bonus things for a while in the 2000s.

– Audioslave was also one of fifteen albums used to test the viability of the DualDisc format, released on that format only in the test markets of Boston and Seattle, presumably featuring much of the same content as the Enhanced CD, as well as the entire album in audiophile-quality 20bit 48 kHz audio.  The resulting sales figures were evidently promising, as the DualDisc format officially rolled out about a year or so later.  However, it had all but fizzled out by around 2007, and we obviously don’t see DualDiscs around any more.  I myself have three DualDisc albums, and all three of them are awesome.  Yes, it’s an incredibly gimmicky format, but if it sells (even for just a year or so), it sells.

– The screenshot says 2003 because “Give” erroneously had that listed as the year in my library; I fixed it after taking the screenshot, but I didn’t feel like redoing the screenshot once I noticed it.

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