Billy Corgan's ace up his sleeve
The Smashing Pumpkins had released their first album, Gish, on 28 May 1991 on a small independent label and had managed to break into Billboard's Top 200 for a week, something almost unheard of for an independent band. But when Nirvana's Nevermind, produced by the same guy who had made theirs, Butch Vig, overtook Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the charts on 1 January 1992, the barriers between independent and mainstream were broken down for that generation. Suddenly expectations for them went through the roof and Billy Corgan was labelled the next 'Generation X' star, all at a time when the band's frontman was going through severe depression and a creative block, drummer Jimmy Camberlin was addicted to heroin, and guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky were breaking up.
In any other case these circumstances would have been less than ideal, but for a guy with Corgan's ego it all added fuel to his most memorable work. The band's frontman shared a production chair with Vig and re-recorded most of the instruments himself except for the percussion, which didn't sit well with Iha and Wretzky. Their mix of Black Sabbath and the Cure became even bigger and more excessive, recording over 40 guitar overdubs for some songs, like on Soma, achieving something closer to prog rock than Nirvana’s punk.
In an era of DIY and semi-professionalism, Corgan and the Pumpkins were seen as rock stars, something almost taboo among "the alternative nation", but Corgan couldn't care less, launching into shuddering guitar solos and even incorporating lavish string arrangements into his songs. Afterwards, Corgan did his best to cement his image as the biggest asshole of the era, but no one could deny that he wasn't a tremendous songwriter.
The album opened majestically with Cherub Rock, one of his greatest songs, rising in intensity until a riff came in that was alternative rock's answer to Black Sabbath's Master Of Reality. In the lyrics Corgan made it clear that he was an outcast in the alternative scene, with one of the first uses of the word 'hipster', but he could also see how the industry/money was taking over that same scene. In his explosive guitar solo he uses a trick he employs more often than not, known as 'tape phasing', in which the solo is recorded and played back at the same time but slightly out of phase with the first.
His most melodic vein appeared with the immortal Today, another of those nineties anthems that used the Pixies' magic formula of calm/strong, in which Corgan focused on his depression and suicidal feelings after the recording of Gish. Rocket was the fourth, and final, single from Siamese Dream, built on another great riff, this time with plenty of psychedelic flavour, bathed in Corgan's LSD experiences, while in the lyrics the Pumpkins’ frontman called for his own spotlight, out of Kurt Cobain's giant shadow.
Disarm was a great acoustic ballad, with a majestic string arrangement (another that benefited from another one was the thrilling Spaceboy) and a great melody, in which Corgan spoke of his difficult relationship with his parents growing up. Then came the epic Soma, in which the imprint of a band out of the alternative orbit, Pink Floyd, can be seen, for which he recorded multiple overdubs and a guitar solo that Rolling Stone considered the 24th best of all time. Corgan proves he is one of the best guitarists of his generation and unleashes the full power of his combo with his Stratocaster with three Fender Lace Sensor pickups and his Big Muff through his favourite amp, a 100-watt '84 Marshall JCM 800. Another of the album's standout tracks is Mayonaise, a collaboration between Corgan and Iha, which used the distorted sound of a cheap guitar that Corgan had owned for some time.
But, on the whole, there is not a single bad song on the entire album, Corgan had set out to record a titanic work and he had succeeded; the 13 songs he had written for the album lived up to the enormous expectations and Siamese Dream was to become one of the defining albums of the decade. The singer and guitarist was so sure of this that before releasing it, he made a big bet: if the album didn't become an absolute success, he would break up the band. It wasn't necessary, Corgan had already won the bet before showing his cards, and he couldn't have had a better hand.