The Genius Of… Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins
Corgan and co’s breakout album remains for many a high water mark, but what made it so special?
The Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup in 1991, featuring (L-R) D’Arcy Wretzky, James Iha, Billy Corgan, and Jimmy Chamberlin. Image: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
In the wake of the release of their newest album, Atum: Act III, the final instalment of the Atum rock-opera trilogy, we are taking a look back at the influence and legacy of arguably one of the Smashing Pumpkins’ most notable albums, Siamese Dream.
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Siamese Dream is the sophomore LP of the band’s discography, released almost 30 years ago, and followed on from the release of their debut album two years earlier, Gish. This grungy and somewhat acid-heavy release could not have prepared listeners for what was to follow, as Siamese Dream offered a perfectionist execution not yet seen from the seemingly turbulent Smashing Pumpkins.
This album represents the growing maturity of the Pumpkins, as they began their ascension to rock royalty.
One man band
As the album begins with almighty opener, Cherub Rock, the prowess of the band stuns. The sheer determination seen from the heavy and fast paced chords, intertwined with stomping bass and Billy Corgan’s youthful yet controlled voice. There is no other way to describe The Pumpkins’ energy other than omnipotent. This was a maturity not yet seen from the band, and it is this energy that is continued throughout all 13 tracks.
Long since the release of Siamese Dream, rumours have circulated about the construction of the album, and Corgan’s role within that. More specifically, that he wrote and performed much of the album himself and played all the guitar and bass parts. While these are merely rumours, interviews those that worked close with the band suggest otherwise.
“Billy was a mad scientist with the guitars,” said producer and musician Butch Vig in a 2009 GearSpace forum Q&A about the album. “A lot of times I would have to draw out a map, literally, of the song for his guitars with all these arrows, going, ‘Okay, this one goes to track 14 for the clean guitar through the second verse.’ For instance, on ‘Soma,’ that was one of the biggest guitar maps I ever had. That was epic. I remember having to flip over the back of the track sheet and continue the map.”
“My opinion as to why is that Billy knew pretty much what he wanted,” chimed in engineer on the album, Jeff Tomei. “In all fairness to James and D’arcy, there is no way to get inside someone else’s head and play exactly what they envision. I also don’t think that they were as prepared for the record as Billy.”
The meticulousness of the construction is not only incredibly impressive considering it was potentially done by one person, but also considering the topics that were being sung about. Take Rocket, for example. A track retelling the story of Corgan’s childhood, and the pain he felt due to struggles with parental neglect, with lyrics reciting “consume my love, devour my hate, only powers my escape”. However alongside this is a song teeming with melting intricate guitar lines and powerful riffs, so intricately written regardless of the pain that the song is describing. It makes you really see that Billy Corgan is a man that can do it all.
Finding triumph in tragedy
The album itself is brimming with Corgan’s very open struggle with depression among other difficulties, but in a rather crass way, the frontman clearly found his musicianship through these dark periods.
This is seen especially in stand-out track, Disarm. While a rather simple track in regards to construction, it complements the incredibly raw and painful lyrics “cut that little child inside of me and such a part of you”. This track smashes the rock stereotype that so many bands like The Pumpkins had made sure to uphold in the early 90s. With violins and swirling percussion, alongside the standard line up of gritty guitar and bass. It’s a track that certainly takes listeners a-back.
Similarly with Soma, a rather painful and personal account of heartbreak, has been transformed into a turbulent yet beautiful display of human emotion. The way the track transitions from a rather acoustic and simply assembled track, into one that is essentially seven-minute guitar extravaganza is astounding. Guitars are almost screaming out with emotion, with the lead guitar performing a solo that makes listeners feel the pain and passion in Corgan’s lyrics. The instrumentation is empathetic and authentic, and he has allowed the fans to feel with him.
There was also another element of concern for the band, and that was the rise of competitors, Nirvana.
“We were on tour, selling out everywhere we go,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 1995 of the period following their 1991 debut, Gish. “Everything went cool, fine, dandy. Suddenly, boom: Nirvana. We went from being seen as future stars almost to has-beens, people saying, ‘Well, if you were so good, this would have happened to you.’”
Regardless of this, Smashing Pumpkins remained authentic to themselves in their sound and in their lyrics, and this is something affirmed through Siamese Dream.
Though Siamese Dream might not scale the majestic heights of wild invention that later album Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness did, their sophomore album represents the band not only finding their sound, but shows the group finding beauty in the barbaric, a skill that should not be taken for granted.