Forget the charts, forget awards shows, forget fleeting trends: Ultimately, little in life is as overwhelmingly exciting as the sound of a musician or a band finding its voice and emerging, like some bloodied newborn, as a creature all its own. For the Seattle band Soundgarden, that time has come with Superunknown. On three previous albums, the group lurched about in search of just the right melding of alternative rock, heavy metal, and punk. Here and there, on tracks like the Godzilla stomp of ''Big Dumb Sex'' on 1989's Louder Than Love, they have found it. But for the most part, the band was beginning to sound as if it would never progress beyond its meandering songwriting and singer Chris Cornell's Robert Plant fetish.
Maybe it was the pressure: Seattle musicians with whom Soundgarden shared club time in the mid-'80s are now commandeering the charts, and that must sting. Or maybe they've just grown older and wiser. Whatever the reason, Soundgarden is pumped and primed on Superunknown, and they deliver the goods. More than just their best record, it is, like Black Sabbath's Paranoid, Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, and Van Halen's 1984, a hard-rock milestone a boiling vat of volcanic power, record-making smarts, and '90s anomie and anxiety that sets a new standard for anything called metal.
On a purely technical level, Superunknown presents a new and improved Soundgarden. In the past, the band has come off as one-dimensional and cartoonish. This time, coproducer Michael Beinhorn, formerly of the experimental multi-genre band Material, has given them a full-bodied, thick- steak sound that finally does Soundgarden justice. They still love to riff it up like one big demolition ball, but here guitarist Kim Thayil continually varies the shadings. At different moments, his guitars do impressive imitations of buzzsaws, cement mixers, and electrified sitars.
Cornell, meanwhile, continues to bellow like a lumberjack with his foot caught in a bear trap: Listen to his wail on the choruses of ''Let Me Drown.'' Yet his singing has also taken on more subtlety and range. And on the raga- psychedelic ''Black Hole Sun,'' he rides the melody instead of fighting it. On the slowly churning ''Mailman,'' Cornell's vocal swoops into an upper register (''I've seen how you give it/Now I want you to re-ceeeive''), with an effect as chilling as that first moment of mayhem in a good slasher film. The song isn't explicitly about the crack-up of a postal worker, but it needn't be Cornell's turn of phrase says it all.
Beyond being a minor masterwork, ''Mailman'' is indicative of another factor that makes this album vault past its predecessors. Unlike Soundgarden mantras of old, the songs have relatively conventional verse-chorus-verse structures. Even when the music takes a hairpin turn, as in the just-like-ringing-a-bell guitar interlude of the bludgeoning anti-self-help diatribe ''My Wave,'' the twists don't throw the material off kilter. That hardly sounds like an impressive accomplishment, but a little structure works wonders for them. By following a straight-ahead riffer like ''Spoonman'' with the primordial ooze of ''Limo Wreck'' which, in turn, is followed by the sulky, mid-tempo ''The Day I Tried to Live'' they have made a record of beguiling hills and valleys. For once, they sound as if they have the songs, and their own power, under control.
Listening to Superunknown, one can easily forget that Soundgarden hails from Washington State, which may be its ultimate triumph. The much-vaunted Seattle sound already appears engraved in stone be it the classic-rock tendencies of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees or the defiantly stripped-down spunk of Nirvana and Mudhoney. Superunknown can't be bothered with such splintering, because, intentionally or not, the group has bigger Puget Sound fish to fry. Superunknown is the place where American heavy metal meets Northwestern wild man grunt rock, which portends something even more tantalizing. It may be the first record to slam together two disparate fan groups working-class metalheads and too-hip-to-be-happy alternative fans and give them a stomping ground they can both call home. Personally, I'm crossing my fingers. A