Published on June 13th, 2013 | by Todd Monahan0
Rewind Listen: Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Summary: The quality of the music on Siamese Dream cuts through the monolith of overproduction like a knife, and it still sounds great 20 years later.
Progressive Grunge Rock
Ambition, Vision and Derision
People who grew up during the 1980’s and those who grew up during the 1990’s (I kind of cover both decades) seem to have a great deal of contempt for each other’s music. I fall in the ‘90’s camp although there are some things from the ‘80’s that I like. The ironic thing about the Smashing Pumpkins 1993 smash Siamese Dream was that it was one of the landmark albums of the alternative rock era written by a guy who really liked ‘70’s and 80’s rock, especially heavy metal. Singer-guitarist Billy Corgan certainly didn’t care if other alt-rock bands thought his music was over produced, fussy or pretentious.
After their debut release Gish (1991) on Caroline Records far outsold the independent label’s expectations, the band signed to parent company Virgin with the intent to make the next record to set the world on fire. Corgan, who wrote all of the material on the album except two songs (“Soma” and “Mayonnaise”) that he co-wrote with guitarist James Iha, had no interest in following trends or letting the musical climate of the time dictate how the album would be made. Siamese Dream had a thick, layered, heavily produced sound that leaned more towards the production of albums by bands like Boston and Queen than it did to punk bands like the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. It further refined the band’s sound which was first established on Gish, a kaleidoscope of heavy metal, psychedelia and dream pop of Corgan’s design. Corgan and producer Butch Vig were very focused on production and sonic depth, which did not fit in the with raw, abrasive grunge sound that was in vogue at this time. Nirvana and Pavement, both leaders of the alt-rock sound, publicly dismissed the band’s music. The album was written and recorded amid intense conflict within the band which included near-breakups, nervous breakdowns, and drug abuse, while the albums recording costs went well beyond its budget. Despite all the difficulties that arose during its recording, Siamese Dream was a high water mark in ‘90’s alt-rock and one of the best rock albums of all time.
It further refined the band’s sound which was first established on Gish, a kaleidoscope of heavy metal, psychedelia and dream pop of Corgan’s design.
The album opens with one of the great hard rock opening tracks of all time, “Cherub Rock”. Two drum rolls are followed by clean guitars strumming an octave. The bass and drums fall into place, and then about 20 seconds into the track the sound explodes with pounding drums and heavily distorted guitars playing the song’s main riff. The song’s layered guitar parts sound incredible, and with its catchy riff and power chords the song really rocks. Corgan rants of the hypocrisy of the indie-rock movement, singing “who wants honey, as long as there’s some money” before growling in the chorus “let me out.” A backwards guitar solo gives the song an uplifting feeling, while bassist Darcy’s backing vocals and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s Bonham-like grove fill the song out. “Cherub Rock” is a great opening track, and one that never gets old.
The third track, “Today” is probably the song that introduced most people to the Pumpkins. With its ice-cream truck opening guitar figure and dynamic changes, this fuzz-box anthem became one the songs most identified with the band’s sound. It was also the song that broke the writer’s block that had plagued Corgan for months prior to the album’s recording. The upbeat music contrasts sharply to the Corgan’s dark lyrics of suicide and depression: “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known, can’t wait for tomorrow, I might not have that long.” Corgan would later say he was extremely depressed when he wrote this song, and the lyrics mirrored his desperate, suicidal thoughts. The sunny sound of its music, however, made it a great change from the dirge-like grunge that other bands were doing and cemented the bands status as one of the best alt-rock groups of the early 1990’s.
“Disarm” is another well known song from the album, but this time the music matches up with the dark lyrics. Corgan plays an acoustic guitar while backed by violin and cello, and sings with raw emotion “I used to be a little boy, so old in my shoes… a killer in me is a killer in you, my love.” It’s not clear if the song is about child abuse, the pains of adolescence or depression, but regardless, it’s a powerfully moving track that comes straight from the gut. Its forlorn lyrics and beautiful string arrangement make “Disarm” a masterwork of angst, and one of the band’s very best songs.
While those are probably the three most well known songs from the album, there are many other great ones as well that never made the radio/MTV playlist during the album’s heyday. From start to finish Siamese Dream is one good song after another, with several great tracks and only the undeveloped “Silver Fuck” lacking. “Soma,” “Mayonnaise,” and my personal favorite “Hummer” are all as good in their own way as “Today” and “Cherub Rock.” The album can be unpredictable, with heavy rock numbers suddenly segueing seamlessly into soft, dreamlike passages or vice versa. Corgan’s guitar solos, particularly on rockers like “Geek U.S.A.” and “Soma” are great, while his use of acoustic guitar and Mellotron on mellow numbers like “Spaceboy” give the album a multidimensional, rounded out feel.
If Siamese Dream has one major flaw, its overproduction.
If Siamese Dream has one major flaw, its overproduction. When it was released, many writers called the albums sound “monolithic” which it fitting; Corgan and Vig overdubbed guitar parts so many times that many of the songs have a similar rumble to them. I remember the first time I listened to the record, I thought the heavily-layered guitars sounded great on “Cherub Rock,” but by the time I got to “Geek U.S.A.” it was all starting to sound the same. After a few listens, I realized the songs were not the same, but the heavy production sometimes obscured of the quality of the material. Corgan grew impatient with the other members of the band and played 90% of the guitar and bass parts himself; this practice did not give the record a collective group sound. The guitars on some songs like “Soma” were overdubbed so many times it was overkill. On the band’s follow up, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, they used a live, jam based approach that gave that record a much better sound, although the material was not nearly as strong as it was here. The quality of the music on Siamese Dream cuts through the monolith of overproduction like a knife, and it still sounds great 20 years later.