Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known, because I’m going to write a review of Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. I would like to procrastinate, but this can’t wait ‘till tomorrow. Catapulting them into the mainstream, Siamese Dream would prove to be their second most popular release.
Despite often being lumped in with many of the grunge bands which were suddenly gaining notoriety at the time, The Smashing Pumpkins did not consider themselves to be cut from the same cloth, and not just because they weren’t from the Seattle area (they’re from Chicago). While the break-out success of bands like Nirvana certainly opened the door for many alternative rock acts, The Smashing Pumpkins always had a unique sound, citing influences which were often denigrated by those in the grunge and alternative scenes.
While The Smashing Pumpkins most popular early singles tend to feature distorted guitars and driving drum patterns – which is why they are frequently associated with the grunge and alternative scenes – closer inspection quickly reveals much more complex approaches to song-writing, instrumentation and recording. Where many of the genres’ major acts tend towards simple power chords and repetitive song structures, The Smashing Pumpkins chose to go with more variety.
Within seconds of the opening of Cherub Rock, the album’s first track and single, we can already detect the double stroke drum rolls of a classically trained musician (Jimmy Chamberlin). This is practically the antithesis of the DIY, punk-inspired ethos of other bands which are typically put up beside The Smashing Pumpkins. Further, they layer guitar riff over guitar riff, leading to what producer Flood referred to as “The Pumpkin overdub guitar army”. Almost every song on Siamese Dream proved impossible to fully reproduce live.
After the release of Cherub Rock came the next single and third track, Today. There had been a feud between lead singer and songwriter Billy Corgan and the executives at Virgin Records’ over which would be released first. Corgan won, though the executives were right in suggesting that Today would be more popular.
For me, however, Cherub Rock is clearly the superior choice. Today is not a bad song, but is amongst the more repetitive and simplistic on the album. Written with irony, the song was actually composed while Corgan was in throes of depression. While the most noticeable lyrics are “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”, it alternates between that and descriptions of self-mutilation such as “I’ll tear my heart out before I get out”.
My favourite of the singles (though released fourth) is Rocket, the fifth track. The reverb and layering in this song give a certain ethereal feeling, reminiscent of the shoegaze genre. The song builds from the very beginning, as the opening guitar riff evolves throughout the song, culminating in a rocket blast. Also, unlike many of their contemporaries, the bass line changes constantly through the duration of the song.
Even while the main thrust remains unchanged, there are tons of little variations. It is not uncommon for bands to record just one measure for each part and then just use technology to repeat it. While this does give a more consistent sound to a recording, all the variations in on Siamese Dream indicate that they probably recorded entire songs, showing excellent musicianship. It is worth noting, however, that Corgan did the actual recording of most of the guitar and bass parts, rather than James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky, respectively, which caused tension within the group. Wretzky did acknowledge that Corgan was simply an excellent guitarist and bassist and was able to record in far fewer takes, saving expensive studio time.
The final single for Siamese Dream was Disarm, and it is fairly distinct from the rest of the album. It features soaring cello and violin, with timpani rather than standard drums. Lyrics such as “Cut that little child” and “The killer in me is the killer in you” led to controversy, including a banning by the BBC.
The second half of the album did not produce any singles, but the quality is just as high as the first half. Dynamically speaking, the second half actually performs better than the first, with songs seamlessly flowing between whisper quiet interludes and sudden attacks. Though generally not too experimental, the second half is indeed less radio-friendly, often with longer play-lengths and songs where the hook does not appear for quite some time, if at all. This is in stark contrast to songs such Today, which begins with its catchy earworm. Take, for instance, the bombastic Silverf*ck. Here it is played live back in ’94 and even more wild than the album version.
Siamese Dream is a great album and labour love, created through turmoil. Each member of the band was dealing with their own demons as well as conflicts with each other and yet managed to capture the atmosphere of the era. From anthemic arena rock to ballads and back again, it cemented The Smashing Pumpkins’ place in rock and roll history. Though the band was ultimately doomed to fracture, Siamese Dream will nevertheless live on as a testament to their talent.