Remaster Class – Soundgarden: Badmotorfinger

Left to right: 1991 A&M CD, 2016 A&M 2 LP (top), 2019 A&M-UMe 2LP (bottom), 2016 Blu-ray from A&M box set.

Burning Dinosaur Bones

Soundgarden was catching fire. The proto-headbanging Seattle-bred foursome began to emerge from the misnomered grunge ooze with their second LP, September 1989’s aptly named Louder Than Love, with tracks like “Loud Love” and “Big Dumb Sex” deftly adding observational tact to the band’s already thunderous bouillabaisse. And then, in October of that forever-hallowed alt-rock emergence year of 1991, Soundgarden swerved into even more progressive-leaning hard-metal lanes with the unrelenting Badmotorfinger.

Naturally, most of us got into spinning Badmotorfinger’s 57-plus unforgiving minutes via the 1991 A&M CD, and co-producer Terry Date made sure our expectations weren’t sonically compromised. The insistent low-end churn of “Slaves & Bulldozers,” plus Kim Thayil’s extended guitar-chord riffing and human vocal tsunami Chris Cornell’s lengthy wails, held notes all throughout “Mind Riot” and the heavenly agitation of “Holy Water” were all seemingly constructed for pushing the volume-knob limits in the digital age without bleeding into the red.

True, there were 1991 1LP versions of Badmotorfinger issued by A&M in the U.S. (on limited-edition translucent yellow vinyl) and in the UK (on standard black vinyl) — and there’s even a 1991 A&M cassette, for completists and/or the tape-degradation-inclined — but listening to such dense music on only two sides of wax was a no-go for me. Luckily, when Badmotorfinger’s 25th anniversary rolled around in 2016, A&M went all out by offering a number of Gavin Lurssen-remastered reissue options, including a budget-minded Deluxe 2CD set with a second disc comprising nine studio outtakes and seven of-era live tracks.

I, of course, obtained a copy of that 2CD set for, er, collecting purposes, but the better 2016 Badmotorfinger gauntlet for me was the 4CD/2DVD/1BD Super Deluxe box set that boosts the live material culled from Soundgarden’s 1992 hometown gig at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle up to 19 songs (albeit spread across two CDs). The pair of DVDs offer “Motor Vision” takes on core tracks plus additional live clips, such as a rousing “Rusty Cage” from Roseland Ballroom in New York in May 1992 (hey, I was there — and it was quite refreshing to see and hear that performance from an entirely different angle, rather than my original side-stage-alcove perch) and a truly punishing take on “Cop Killer” from Miami.

As you’d expect, my ears perked up for the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 options on the box set’s Blu-ray — and this is really where the music gets to breathe. Badmotorfinger works so well in surround sound,” agreed Thayil in our unpublished interview from 2019, “especially considering the way the songs were recorded.” Indeed, in 5.1, Thayil’s burled guitar lines now propagate the full soundfield of “Rusty Cage,” while Cornell’s eerie fade-in vocal howls that start each verse of “Jesus Christ Pose” initially attack from the rear left channel.

Not only that, but the Lurssen-remastered 2019 180-gram 2LP red-and-purple color vinyl edition on A&M/UMe sounds quite good too, especially given how the music is now spread across three sides instead of two. (Side Four contains an etching replicating the lenticular cover’s circular buzzsaw graphic.) Some of that Badmotormagic is due in no small part to drummer Matt Cameron’s insistence on sitting in on the remastering sessions not only for this album, but also for March 1994’s Superunknown and May 1996’s Down on the Upside. Why was doing that so important? “Because Matt could distinguish analog mastering from digital,” Thayil explained, “and he could tell that just by how the cymbals sounded. He was the one to push for some analog mastering, not just digital mastering. Matt wanted to make sure he could hear his cymbals a certain way, and that the vocals fit where they should.

We were all really happy he was willing to travel just to sit in on the mastering process since we wanted the records to sound as warm as possible. Also,” Thayil added, choosing his ensuing words somewhat deliberately, “by that point, we had already noticed the CDs sounded like crap, and the digital downloads sounded even stupider.”

As good as Badmotorfinger is in 5.1 — and you already know where I’m going next — it would no doubt be even more unremittingly surroundtastic in Dolby Atmos. Until we get that as a listening option, the wide-ranging 5.1 Badmotorfinger easily outshines its stereo mix by adroitly driving those key immersive nails right through the heart of its aural cage.

trynberg's picture

I really wish that bands/labels would just allow downloading the 5.1 high-res tracks...I have no need to buy an overpriced physical box set.

trynberg's picture

In case it wasn't clear by "downloading", I meant selling the album as a 5.1 download (not looking for a free lunch here).

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