THE SMASHING PUMPKINS — Siamese Dream (review)

THE SMASHING PUMPKINS — Siamese Dream album cover Album · 1993 · Heavy Alternative Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
Necrotica
"Adventurous." What is your definition of that word when it comes to music? Many people will tell you that the word defines an act that breaks boundaries, one that bends genres in unusual ways, one that uses different techniques from who's perceived as average. But I'd like to note that there's another way the word can be described, which is in a more literal sense. "Adventurous," to me, means that you're literally going on an adventure, a musical trip of sorts. Whether they be realistic or surrealistic, albums that feel more like journeys or complete experiences than just a collection of tracks often end up being some of the most rewarding records. Every track flows well into the next, everything is strung together nicely, and atmosphere often takes increased precedence. And let's be real here: early 90s alternative rock produced many great artists, but often relied less on elaborate or ornate musical techniques or sounds because of how it commonly preferred a more simplistic approach. What I'm getting at is that we needed a band like The Smashing Pumpkins to get big when they did.

Fresh off the surprise success of their debut Gish, The Smashing Pumpkins were facing a crushing amount of pressure from the press, already being labeled as the next big thing to happen to alternative rock. This only added to the multitude of internal tensions the entire group were already facing, including frontman Billy Corgan's weight gain and writer's block, the breakup of bassist D'arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain's drug problems. Everything was crashing down during the band's most important recording session, in a situation almost akin to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, but luckily, Billy Corgan did the exact same thing the members of that group dealt with the problems: looking inward. He suffered a nervous breakdown and even planned to kill himself during the time of recording Siamese Dream, and this led to many more lyrical and musical themes regarding insecurities and personal issues he dealt with, both in his childhood and in the present day. What it led to was one of the most breathtaking albums of all time, not just in alternative rock music but any kind of music.

Regarding what I said earlier about certain adventurous albums being akin to literal musical adventures, Siamese Dream is an absolutely prime example of this. It's very much a journey through Billy Corgan's personal life, and his songwriting is always sure to reflect this fact beautifully. What we've got here is a mish-mash of alternative rock, progressive rock, grunge, dream pop, and heavy metal sounds coming together cohesively with a few common atmospheres prevalent throughout the entire record. The best word I can use to describe the vibe as a whole is "warm"; this is an experience that's loaded with feelings of summer nostalgia because of its layered and fuzzy guitar sounds and Billy Corgan's sentimental vocals. Certainly, during songs like "Cherub Rock," "Geek U.S.A." and the ironically titled "Quiet," there's plenty of heavy aggression to be had here as well; however, it's always restrained just enough that it doesn't deviate too far from the album's common themes and overall sound. Each song's style perfectly fits the mood and lyrics it contains: "Disarm" is probably the best example, being a beautifully melancholic and primarily acoustic (and symphonic) ballad that has Corgan singing about the more negative aspects of his childhood and relationship with his parents. He might present himself as quite an arrogant individual on various news sites and interviews, but I don't think many people can deny that this is one of the most vulnerable vocal tracks ever put to a record.

What also really propels Siamese Dream above many of the albums of its day is how it handles its influences. There's a ton of 70s classic rock and dream pop that people can pick out on this record, especially from bands such as Queen and My Bloody Valentine, but once again, it's the blend of the old and the new that makes it all so enthralling. Look at a song like "Soma;" it is, for the most part, a very dreamlike alternative rock ballad whose sprawling motifs quite likely influenced Radiohead's late-90s work. But then it throws a wrench in the works by including an unbelievably gorgeous moment of guitar layering in the middle that recalls Queen guitarist Brian May's operatic harmonies. It doesn't last very long, but it somehow blends perfectly with the band's 90s sound and really makes a lasting impression long after the song is over. This is also reflected in the Mellotron playing in the ballad "Spaceboy," which has a sound similar to 70s progressive rock acts while skillfully retaining the characteristics of its own era, such as the more alternative and melancholic opening guitar lines. However, the beauty of it all is that Siamese Dream sounds like it could have been released today and still be relevant... THAT'S the sign of a truly timeless record. There's nothing here that sounds like a product of its time, despite the contemporary 90s influences and classic 70s/80s influences throughout the experience.

Finally, since Billy Corgan gets mentioned so much, I'd like to speak of the other musicians before I wrap things up; this is, by far, the best instrumental work that The Smashing Pumpkins have had. While Corgan helped D'arcy Wretzky with recording many of the bass lines on this album, James Iha's guitar work accompanies Corgan's playing very well and Jimmy Chamberlain is just a fucking monster on this thing. "Geek U.S.A." in particular is commonly cited to have some of the best drumming in rock history, and for good reason. In the end, what makes Siamese Dream work so wonderfully is that the band made the best of their darkest hour. They could have crashed and burned, crumbling under the pressure of hype and personal issues, but they ended up making these problems lyrical concepts and making music out of them. But the music that accompanies it is what's especially impressive, and the very thing that made this album the classic it is to this day. It's emotional, it's instrumentally proficient, it's personal, it's influential, it's a cornerstone of rock music, and it's one of the best albums ever made. Period.

(Originally published on Sputnikmusic)
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