The band's trademark sound was created by blending 1970s hard rock with 1990s grunge. Moreover, Morello incorporated his well-known, unconventional guitar solos into this mix. As with Rage Against the Machine, the band prided themselves on the fact that all sounds on their albums were produced using only guitar, bass, drums and vocals; no samples were ever used.
After Audioslave released three successful albums, received three Grammy nominations, sold more than eight million records worldwide, and became the first American rock band to perform an open-air concert in Cuba, Cornell issued a statement in February 2007 that he was permanently leaving the band "due to irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences". As the other three members were busy with the Rage Against the Machine reunion, and Morello and Cornell had each released solo albums in 2007, Audioslave was officially disbanded.
The chemistry between Cornell and the other three was immediately apparent; as Morello described: "He stepped to the microphone and sang the song and I couldn't believe it. It didn't just sound good. It didn't sound great. It sounded transcendent. And ... when there is an irreplaceable chemistry from the first moment, you can't deny it." The quartet wrote 21 songs during 19 days of rehearsal, and began working in the studio in late May 2001 with Rubin as producer, while sorting out the label and management issues.
That was Chris' suggestion that sort of came to him in a vision. We're all on the two-way pagers, and Chris one night said, "I got it. It's Audioslave." We were all, like, "All right, fantastic."... To paraphrase Elvis Costello, talking about band names is like dancing about architecture—there's just no point in it because the band name becomes the music and the people.
After the name was announced, it emerged that it was already being used by an unsigned band from Liverpool. The two bands worked out a settlement, with Audioslave paying $30,000 in a deal that allowed each band to use the name.
The name was mocked by critics due to its uninspired nature, and was regarded as one of the worst in contemporary rock music, or even of all time. Pitchfork Media called it the "most asinine bandname of the year", while Spin magazine chided it as "one of the dumbest band names in recent rock history".
Under the name "Civilian" (or "The Civilian Project"), 13 rough rehearsal demo tracks were leaked onto peer-to-peer filesharing networks in May 2002. According to Morello, the band was frustrated because the songs were not in their finished form and in some cases, "weren't even the same lyrics, guitar solos, performances of any kind".
Initial rumors suggested that Cornell took issue with having two managers actively involved in the project (Jim Guerinot of Rebel Waltz represented Cornell, and Peter Mensch of Q Prime handled Rage Against the Machine). According to the band, however, the split was not triggered by personal conflicts, but by their quarreling managers. After the mixing of the album was finished, roughly six weeks later, the group reformed and simultaneously fired their former management companies and hired another, The Firm. Their previous labels, Epic and Interscope, settled their differences by agreeing to alternate who released the band's albums.
The band divulged their official name and launched their web site in early September. The first single, "Cochise", was posted online in late September, and was on radio in early October. Critics praised Cornell's vocal style, a distinct departure from the rapping of de la Rocha, and found that "the former members of RATM have gone and done a Paul Weller, retreating from the ground they broke back into the sounds that inspired them". Music video director Mark Romanek shot a video for "Cochise", which shows the band playing atop an under-construction tower in the midst of a giant fireworks display providing all the lighting. The firework explosions during filming prompted fears of a terrorist attack among residents living near Los Angeles' Sepulveda Dam, the shooting location.
The self-titled debut album, Audioslave, was released on November 19, 2002 and entered the Billboard 200 chart at number seven after selling 162,000 copies in its first week. It was certified gold by the RIAA within a month of release, and by 2006 achieved triple platinum status. It is the most successful Audioslave album to date, having sold more than three million copies in the United States alone.
Despite its commercial success, Audioslave received mixed reviews. Some critics lambasted the group's effort as uninspired, and predictable. Pitchfork Media praised Cornell's voice, but criticized virtually every other aspect of the album, deeming the lyrics "complete gibberish" and Rubin's production "a synthesized rock-like product that emits no heat". Other critics, however praised the supergroup's style reminiscent of 1970s rock and compared it to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, saying they added much-needed sound and style to contemporary mainstream rock.
Audioslave made their live debut on November 25, 2002, performing a brief concert on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in New York City, for the Late Show with David Letterman. This was the first time any band had appeared on Letterman's marquee. That year's KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas was their first official paying concert, where the band played on the first night, December 7, 2002, after giving a secret club show the night before. Towards the end of the band's six song set, Cornell told the audience, "These guys saved my life this year", and the show ended with his band mates hugging him. Afterwards, asked to expand on his comments, he would only say that he had dragged the trio "through a trail of shit" in the past months.
During this time, there was a rumor that Cornell had checked himself into drug rehabilitation. He later confirmed it in an interview with Metal Hammer that was conducted from a clinic payphone. In a San Diego CityBEAT article, Cornell explained that he went through "a horrible personal crisis" during the making of the first record, staying in rehab for two months and separating from his wife. He credited Morello, Commerford and Wilk with helping him rebound from the difficult period. He dismissed the rumors about being in rehab for OxyContin or heroin, but when asked, only offered, "Various things. I'm not picky. Mainly for drinking.
"Like a Stone", the second single from Audioslave, was released in early 2003. It was the highest-charting single from the album, peaking at number one on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Tracks and Modern Rock Tracks charts. It was certified gold by the RIAA, making it Audioslave's most successful single ever. The music video for the third single, "Show Me How to Live", was banned from MTV, reportedly because it shows the band in a high-speed car chase running police cars and motorcycles off the road. The band's first DVD, Audioslave, was released on July 29, 2003.
The band toured extensively worldwide in 2003, gaining positive reviews for their live performances, including at the revived Lollapalooza.
Work on a new album had started in 2003 during the Lollapalooza tour, and continued at the end of the year when band members entered the studio. Aside from writing new material, the band also had some leftover songs from the Audioslave sessions; according to Morello, they had "almost another album's worth of stuff [already done]". "Be Yourself", the first single from the still-untitled album, was heavily panned by critics, who felt it was "limp and the lyrics are bland and directionless". Nevertheless, it reached number one on the Mainstream and Modern Rock charts.
In April 2005 the band launched a club tour, which lasted until late May. Although on previous tours Audioslave occasionally played cover songs, they deliberately avoided playing their former bands' songs to avoid using those songs as a "crutch" to "help sell and break Audioslave", as their aim was to establish the band as an "independent entity". After achieving that goal, they thought it was "time to own those histories", and began performing a selection of the two bands' most popular songs on the tour.
The second single, "Your Time Has Come" was released through a unique promotion, lasting one week, which involved radio listeners around the world. Radio stations were asked to post a link on their web sites to a special timed-out download of the song. Once one million people clicked on the link, the song was unlocked and became downloadable by all one million.
On May 6, 2005, Audioslave played a free show in Havana, Cuba, in front of an estimated 50,000 people at the La Tribuna Antiimperialista José Martí (José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribunal) venue, which was purpose-built in 2000 for mass protests against the U.S. government. Audioslave became the first American rock group to perform an open-air concert in the communist country of Cuba. The band traveled to Havana—bringing along their camera crew—on May 4 to spend two days visiting historic sites and interacting with Cuban musicians and youngsters. Morello and the rest of the band insisted that the trip was not to make a political statement, but to take part in a musical cultural exchange. Cornell commented: "Hopefully, this concert will help to open the musical borders between our two countries." The trip was organized with the joint authorization of the United States Department of the Treasury and the Instituto Cubano de la Musica (Cuban Institute of Music), as travel by US citizens to Cuba is restricted, but the authorization arrived so late that the band had to cancel and postpone several confirmed dates of their US tour. The 26-song set concert -- which included several Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine songs -- was the longest the band had ever played.
Out of Exile was released internationally on May 23, 2005, then a day later in the U.S. It debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the only Audioslave album to reach this position. The following week, however, it dropped to number three, with a 62 percent sales decrease—consequently reaching platinum. Cornell admitted to writing his most personal songs ever on this album, influenced by the positive changes in his life since 2002. He also described the album as more varied than the debut and relying less on heavy guitar riffs.
The album was received more favorably than Audioslave's debut; critics noted Cornell's stronger vocals, likely the result of quitting smoking and drinking, and pointed out that Out Of Exile is "the sound of a band coming into its own". Allmusic, which gave Audioslave a lukewarm review, praised the album as "lean, hard, strong, and memorable". The lyrics, however, were still a common complaint, musicOMH.com wrote that Cornell's lyrics "continue to border on the ridiculous", The album's softer, slower approach was frequently criticized as well.
Following the album's release, the band embarked on a European tour, performed at the Live 8 benefit concert in Berlin on July 2, 2005, and played their first North American headlining arena tour from late September to November 2005. The music video for "Doesn't Remind Me", the third single from Out of Exile, was posted online in September 2005. Audioslave's second DVD, Live in Cuba, featuring the concert in Havana, was released on October 11, 2005. It was certified platinum in less than two months.
Audioslave had 20 songs written and recorded 16 of those in only three weeks.. However, the album's release date was postponed to early September, and the band cancelled their previously announced European tour, to have a new album to support, when they embarked on touring. The first single off the album, "Original Fire", was made available online on Audioslave's official website for free streaming in early July.
News about Cornell's departure emerged in July 2006, when insiders stated that after the third album he would split for a solo career. The singer immediately denied the rumors, stating "We hear rumors that Audioslave is breaking up all the time. ... I always just ignore [them]". In the same interview, he also discussed his intentions to record a new solo album, the second in seven years, before the end of August.
A special marketing campaign preceded the new album's release in August, when the art concept was featured on Google Earth as a fictional utopian island, Audioslave Nation, created in the South Pacific. Several songs from the upcoming album appeared on movie and video game soundtracks; "Wide Awake" and "Shape of Things to Come" were featured in Miami Vice, while "Revelations" was on the soundtrack of Madden NFL 07. Revelations was released on September 5, 2006. The album entered the Billboard 200 at #2 and sold 142,000 copies during its first week of release. It became the band's least commercially successful album; dropping even faster than Out of Exile, its sales were down 65 percent the following week, achieving gold certification a month later. The album showed funk, soul and R&B influences that were non-existent for the band before; Morello referred to the new sound as "Led Zeppelin Meets Earth, Wind & Fire". Additionally, several songs took a more overtly liberal political stance than previous Audioslave releases.
The album received a similar critical response to Out of Exile with the majority of reviewers praising the band's integrity on the record. The new funk and soul influences were also welcomed favorably, Allmusic called the album Audioslave's "most colorful, diverse, and consistent record yet". Many others, however, saw it as "just another rock record", and musically not much different from the previous album.
Cornell decided to delay the Revelations tour until 2007, because he wanted to "let the album come out for awhile" and also concentrate on his second solo album. The rest of the band went along; Morello also revealed his plans to release his debut solo album in early 2007. The second, and final single from the album, "Revelations" was released in October 2006 with an accompanying music video a month later.
On January 22, 2007, Rage Against the Machine was announced to reunite for one show only, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on April 29, 2007. Less than a month later, on February 15, 2007, Cornell officially announced his departure from Audioslave, issuing this statement:
Due to irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences, I am permanently leaving the band Audioslave. I wish the other three members nothing but the best in all of their future endeavors.
He stated that, as far as he was concerned, Audioslave had disbanded, and that a greatest hits collection would be issued in the future, because of label commitments. The New York Post reported that according to sources the split was not about "irresolvable personality conflicts" but about the money, a friend of Cornell said: "Chris was unhappy with the financial arrangement within the group—he wrote all the music, yet the other three bandmates took an equal share in the multimillion-dollar publishing rights.
Morello has said that he never officially heard and "still haven't heard" from Cornell that he was leaving the group. Cornell countered: "Tom and I did have communications about the fact that I was gonna go make a record, and that I was tired of what ended up seeming like political negotiations toward how we were gonna do Audioslave business and getting nowhere with it." He also added that this process of "doing Audioslave business" led him to go solo.
Cornell admits that he has not spoken to the other members of Audioslave since the breakup. He has said that the breakup was not about money, but that he was just not getting along with the other members during their later years. Said Cornell, "Getting along as people is one thing. Getting along as a group of people that can work together in a band situation...We weren't particularly getting along well, no. Bands work in a way where everyone at some point has to have a similar idea of how you do things...Three albums into it, it started to seem like our interests weren't as conjoined anymore."
As opposed to de la Rocha's lyrics, Cornell's were mostly apolitical; Morello referred to them as "haunted, existential poetry". They were characterized by his cryptic approach, often dealing with themes of existentialism,, love, hedonism, spirituality and Christianity. Critics were not often impressed with Cornell's lyrical work; its detractors usually deemed his songs clichéd and meaningless.
Audioslave's first two albums drew influences from 1970s hard rock such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and from the members' previous bands (the grunge of Soundgarden and the funk metal of Rage Against the Machine). For Revelations, which was influenced by 1960s and 70s funk, soul and R&B music, Morello used vintage guitars and amplifiers, and Cornell adopted his "seventies funk and R&B-flavor vocals". The guitarist also cited Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown and Funkadelic as a reason for the funk overtones on the album.
Just as Rage Against the Machine did, Audioslave also included the statement "All sounds made by guitar, bass, drums, and vocals" in their albums' booklets as Morello's guitar work often caused listeners to believe that the band used samples, synthesizer effects or different turntable techniques to produce certain sounds.
The time spent on songwriting by the band was always short. They wrote 21 songs in 19 days for the first album, and exceeded that rate for the second album by having a song or sometimes two written every day. This method was adopted for the third album as well.
Cornell's battle with drug addiction and alcoholism was a defining factor in the writing and recording process of the debut album. The singer admitted that he was "never able to write effectively" while drinking, and attended rehab after recording Audioslave. Although Morello stated that Revelations was "the first record [Cornell] didn't smoke, drink or take drugs through the recording", he later corrected his statement by saying: "Chris was stone sober during the making of our Out of Exile album. Chris was also sober during the making of Revelations and prior to recording he gave up smoking as well.
The band was openly anti-Bush and against the Iraq War from the beginning; on March 17, 2003, only hours after President Bush announced plans to invade Iraq, the band performed live in Hollywood with messages reading "How many Iraqis per gallon?" and "Somewhere in Texas, a Village is Missing an Idiot", scrolled across the stage. The music video for "Doesn't Remind Me" was also critical of the Iraq war. Wilk called Bush "a fucking scam" in an interview, criticizing the Bush administration's rationale for war in Iraq.
During the time of the second album's release several politically-charged Rage Against the Machine songs resurfaced in Audioslave's live set. Although the members committed to not making political statements during their Cuba tour, Commerford stated in an interview that the concert made Audioslave more politically active than Rage Against the Machine ever was. While in Cuba, Cornell said that he takes "every aspect of human life" into consideration, when it comes to writing lyrics, and that he would write about the experience in a song, or more songs. This culminated in the political influences on Revelations, although he did not write about Cuba specifically. He asserted that he felt Audioslave can be a band like U2, which is "not overtly political, but Bono gets a lot done". That year, the band played at two more concerts organized to raise political awareness: Live 8, which aimed to end global poverty, and the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, ReAct Now: Music & Relief.
Audioslave was prominently involved in the Axis of Justice, a non-profit organization formed by Tom Morello and System of a Down's Serj Tankian to "bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice". Axis of Justice tents were set up at almost every Audioslave show, and with the exception of Commerford all band members appeared on the Concert Series Volume 1 CD/DVD charity album released in 2004.