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If there ever was a pointless reunion..?
Soundgarden's golden days are well and truly behind them. They rose steadily from "Ultramega OK" through to the classic "Badmotorfinger" and peaked creatively with "Superunkown". Their last album "Down On The Upside" relied too heavily on crafting commercially significant alternative rock songs than on pushing the envelope musically like albums of old and was thus intrinsically forgettable. And so they went their separate ways. Chris Cornell returned with Audioslave who fancied themselves Zeppelin-esque but in a modern setting and also released a slew of dubious solo recordings. Somewhere in there we knew a Soundgarden reunion was inevitable and since once upon a time, Kim Thayil had been one of Earth's more ingenious guitar voices, it was something to look forward to.
But you can always count on the motherfucker that is reality to slap you hard.
"King Animal" possesses an expensive sheen that is uncharacteristically minimal-hopefully to give off an earthy and old fashioned vibe. Like a millionaire's cabin in the woods. There's no escaping the cold womb of commercial rock though, and its vapid baby is lead track "Been Away Too Long" whose bombast and insincerity are only half as compelling as those shimmery alt rock riffs. "By Crooked Steps" is only slightly better with its oddly timed riff and energetic drums courtesy of Matt Cameron. Had it lost a lot of that shine, then maybe Chris Cornell's morose tone would be more searing. If juxtaposition was what they were aiming for surely there are better ways to merge an exuberant riff with a quarrelsome vocal. I'm thinking Led Zep's "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" but perhaps Faith No More's "Ashes To Ashes" is a more realistic example. What we have instead is an anthemic tirade with only the slightest hint of complexity to still render it danceable for the iPod generation. If most of the other songs don't sound as sinful, what they are, is dross!
Here's an album of B-sides that didn't make the cut for "Superunknown" repackaged and distributed by way of an old and tiresome band who've seen better days. Every song here sounds dramatically "Less than" Soundgarden's vast catalog. Chris Cornell's voice is rougher and more worn than ever. He still is capable of wielding a potent emotional edge-and he does on songs like "Bones of Birds" and "Worse Dreams"-but mostly he plays it safe and doesn't drift much outside his comfortable range. Kim Thayil had a most distinctive style and sound in the '90's but every song here sounds samey as far as guitars are concerned. When he leaps out of his chosen character-thwarts the role, if you will-is when things gets exciting. The lead riff in "Blood On The Valley Floor" is most rousing, for instance, and is cleverly reminiscent of Black Sabbath and on "Rowing" he plays it calm, coaxing out a deeply affecting mellow blues that works if only for a while.
Lyrically, the album is a dry well. Soundgarden always had a way with words but here we're offered only smidgens of brilliance, the rest manifesting as dumb anecdotes (I'm addicted to feeling, stealing love isn't stealing) or the vague mumblings of a disgraced inspirational speaker (Have you got a car?/Somewhere to sleep?/Someone who loves you?/Something to eat?/I would say you're doing better than most/Though maybe not as well as some). If you're still convinced that the album has merits, I'll concede that the slick production is meritable. Also tunes like "Blood On The Valley Floor", "Rowing" and "Black Saturday" are also worth re-exploring. The rest of the record is a labor though-but go for it if you feel up to the yawnage...I mean, challenge. Dishonesty makes for bad albums. Maybe after another ten years, they can make a more convincing comeback record.
Though Soundgarden haven't put out an album since 1996's Down on the Upside, I never felt the full gravity of their absence. Chris Cornell, author of a bulk of their material, has kept himself consistently busy with various high-profile projects for the last sixteen years. His throaty wolf's howl and Lennon-meets-Iommi songwriting sensibility have never been far, churning out everything from brilliant pop manifestos (see 2009's Scream) to James Bond theme songs ("You Know My Name", from 2006's Casino Royale) to outings with funk-metal contemporaries Rage Against the Machine in the form of the sadly shortlived Audioslave project. All of this manic activity has given fans of Cornell's initial offering as vocalist/guitarist/songwriter of Seattle's favorite headtrip a lot to dig the fangs of their ears into. The persistent quality of Cornell's output has kept most of us satiated, though the increasingly "poppy" nature of his solo work (surmised beautifully in the aforementioned concept album Scream) has indeed found some of us restless. I know I’ve been turning back to Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, two albums of incredible staying power, resonance and musicianship, for fulfillment. Thus, when Cornell announced that the knights of the Soundtable rode again, ears perked to attention. At least, mine certainly did.
I have a long history with the band. I was raised on Soundgarden. I may have been born in 1990, and am too young to say honestly that I was "around" for their seize on the modern rock scene, but Soundgarden's music has been with me since I was born. My mother raised me in the church of Badmotorfinger. I remember being the in the backseat of her black Jetta and enthusiastically feasting my ears on the sonic madness of songs like "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Outshined" - songs that were the sonic equivalent of Godzilla to my preciously fragile ears, which had until that point been filled with the sorry sounds of acts like Garth Brooks, the Spice Girls and Dead Eye Dick. As I grew and my interest in music got serious, I learned to appreciate the subtle colors and nuances of Superunknown (arguable the band's masterpiece), had my heart broken to Down on the Upside, and would even eventually learn to love their earlier, rawer material. I lost my faith to songs like "They Day I Tried To Live" and "Fell On Black Days", found it again to "Holy Water" and "Slaves & Bulldozers", and often find myself in contemplation to songs like "Pretty Noose" and "Limo Wreck". Needless to say, the band's music is fucking important to me on a very personal level. So when "King Animal" was announced, I was beyond excited - I was positively ecstatic. It was big. It was important. And It was happening at a point in my life when I knew where I stood on the band, and had developed my taste in music pretty extensively.
Before we begin discussing the sound, though, I'd say that this album is a typical 'grower'. Anyone who has listened to this album three or less times has no place to comment on it, except for in a shoot-from-the-hip type of way. It is catchy, but it is not obvious. It is heavy, but it is not the distortion or beats per minute that make it heavy. This album is like good tea: you really need to let it steep within your mind and let the waters of your soul absorb all of the different flavors, colors, textures and tones this album puts forth in order to appreciate it fully. Listen with headphones. Listen with your eyes closed. Listen alone. Moreover: this is not really a metal album. Soundgarden would not be considered a metal band if this was their only album. It is certainly not an album that wants to be lumped in with your typical, aesthetic-driven heavy fraggin’ metal album. Soundgarden comes from a place of Zeppelin and Sabbath - bands whose albums were not looking to embody any genre in particular, but rather to embody where the band was in their lives at that point in time, where their ears were. In a day and age where more and more musical acts seem to be dogmatic about either experimentation or conformity, it is nice to hear something that is "generally" ______, with strong whiffs of ______ and ______, if you know what I mean. You can hear the influences at work, and you can hear the development of their own style, yet at the same time the music also gives you room to Listen Between the Lines - a skill most of us have that we should use to the best of our ability when listening to most collections of songs.
"Been Away Too Long" has the curse of opening this album. It blends, almost masterfully, both the jerky structures of Badmotorfinger and the chunky timbres of Superunknown, but it is lacking the youthful bite of those albums. It is catchy, it is fun, it will certainly be fun live, but it gets to sounding tired after repeated listens. "Non-State Actor" kicks things into proper gear; this song is heavier than anything I've heard come out of anyone else this year. The main riff, a bluesy Tool sendup sweetened by the unmistakable sound of a phatass Les Paul, must weigh a thousand pounds. It falls into an awkward groove that will eventually seem impossibly cool, much like the slamming stutter of "By Crooked Steps". This song is my favorite kind of Soundgarden song: atmospheric, sprawling and ambitious. Thayil lays down liquid guitar lines, giving way to a pounding stutter-step riff augmented by Cornell's ghostly wail. It sounds strange at first, and perhaps unmemorable, but will eventually develop into a favorite. Written by the entire band, this track serves as a wonderful reminder that, while Cornell is a good songwriter, he needs the instrumental prowess and fertile imaginations of Thayil, Shepherd and Cameron to craft truly great music. Especially Kim Thayil, with his layers upon layers of guitar tracks: scraping, shredding, plucking, droning - all techniques tastefully providing each song with a unique color and atmosphere.
Point in case would be "A Thousand Days Before", music written by K. Thayil, with guitar lines of glistening gold. This song swims with exotic eastern influence, brought to life by Thayil's happy, glowing guitarwork and slithering sitars. Strange time signatures abound, and Cornell's voice never works better than when it is in this context. By comparison, "Blood on the Valley Floor" sounds positively boring. The plodding main riff wants to be Sabbathy, but instead it sounds dull and uninspired. Cornell's reliance on reverb is obvious on this song. His voice is still great, albeit throatier and less capable of his patented 'shriek' (though he still possess that bestial bark), though it seems like more and more he fades his voice in and out instead of leaving it be. Whether this is to add a ghostly effect or to hide the age of his voice, it sounds sad on this song. Skip it, except for perhaps the cool guitarwork towards the end of the track.
"Bones of Birds" is the first song with music/lyrics exclusively by C. Cornell, and it holds up well beneath the majestic heft of the first five tracks. With bleak chords chiming beneath Cornell's croon (the one many fans of Audioslave know from tracks such as "Like A Stone") give way to a wistful chorus. It is a much-needed change in dynamics for the album, mellowing the mix a bit and leaving room for reflection. Again, Listening Between the Lines is important here. "Taree" sounds almost too similar to "Bones of Birds", and shouldn't have followed it for that reason, though it is solid song and possess some mighty riffage. "Attrition" is a punky ditty that reminds me a lot of something like "Kickstand", and sounds sadly uninspired. Next to that, Sheperd's lyrics are laughably obvious when compared to Cornell's haunted, almost hermetic poetry. The "ooo-ooo" background vocals don't help much. It is probably the only song I will routinely skip once I'm done absorbing this album. "Black Saturday", another C. Cornell offering, is the first of two songs that sound like they came right off of his solo album Carry On. It even boasts a horn section. "Halfway There" follows, and is the other Carry On-ish song (the album is indeed sequenced brilliantly) - complete with some cool color guitar from Thayil that envokes both George Harrison and Robert Smith. You'll need to be in the mood for some jangly pop songs to appreciate these two songs, though. Don't expect anything heavy.
"Worse Dreams" brings us back to what Soundgarden do best: sprawling, dizzying rock tracks. This song has what is perhaps the best standalone riff Cornell has written in a while: pondering, languorous, and tentacle-ey, I suppose. The punk influence on the chorus isn't quite lame enough to obscure the superb performance by Shepherd and Cameron here. “Eyelids Mouth” follows it up nicely, and even one-ups “Worse Dreams”, with a spiraling Sabbathesque chorus and beautiful basswork by Shepherd. Cornell’s voice steals the show, though, much as it does on the closer “Rowing”, which could be described as a Cornell showcase. The bluesy, chaingang chorus will burn itself into your brain if you let it, and the trip-hop tendency of the first half reminds you how eclectic the band is, and how important eclectic taste is to fully appreciate this album. I would call “Rowing” my favorite song on the album, especially because the last half of it reminds me a lot of my favorite SG song - “Limo Wreck” - but in the end, it is a bit obvious, and perhaps too accessible, and pales a tiny bit in comparison to the majesty of “A Thousand Days Before” and the riot-starting stomp of “Non-State Actor”.
When all is said and done, there is no way I could call this album anything but a triumphant success. It maintains the eclectic influences and tasteful instrumental mastery of past albums. The band knows what they can and cannot do (they had better know that at this point in the game), and wisely stick to doing what they know they do well - despite a few lousy moments. They've spent a long time in the lab cooking up their sound, and I’d say King Animal serves as a beautiful music thesis. It possess neither the spontaneous majesty of Bodmotorfinger nor the bleak grandeur of Superunknown, but to expect that is to have unrealistic expectations. These are aging pioneers, let us not forget that. Listening to this album, you’ll be reminded of just how many acts took cues from these guys. Among them are ever-popular acts such as Tool, Type O Negative and Mastodon. And if you listen without prejudice, with your good eye open, you’ll also be reminded that nobody does it better. This album can take you on a journey. It can enrich your spirit, if you let it. But that’s a whole different discourse.
Get it. Get lost in it. Find or lose religion to it. This could be an important album for you. It certainly is for me.
Soundgarden will never top Badmotorfinger. Every hard rock or heavy metal fan knows this. Their other albums are usually a pretty good escape, but the artistic prowess of Badmotorfinger will never be duplicated. Why do I bring up Badmotorfinger here, you might wonder? Well, this is the first album Soundgarden has done in a while that is worthy of that comparison. It really DOES sound like Badmotorfinger. It's not quite as good, but a lot of the songs here sound like they could fit right in on that album, and that is a MASSIVE compliment.
King Animal kicks off with a driving riff that perfectly embodies not only the spirit of King Animal, but everything that made Soundgarden such a great band. Been Away Too Long is a treat to listen to, and the title is perfect for Soundgarden's first studio album in 16 years. This whole album is full of the alien rhythms, memorable riffs, and crushing energy that makes a great hard rock CD. Even the songs that aren't quite top-shelf, Badmotorfinger level material are good enough to stand against the also-excellent Superunknown.
Lyrical themes are decent. Some of it sounds like the usual complaints of a middle age man, and it ALL sounds like material that a middle aged man would write. But that's the thing, Chris Cornell IS a middle aged man. And while it may shine overtly through his lyrics, he can still howl like a mad dog like he could on all the 90's albums.
Production is fantastic. Nothing is artificial, and yet the sound is crisp and clear like all the popular artists of today. So, in short, it doesn't sound like a pop album, but it is produced with the better aspects of a pop album.
Unlike many of the bands that attempted comebacks this year, (especially Van Halen) King Animal sounds like the sincere work of a group that genuinely wanted to record some meaningful new material. It sounds NECESSARY. It isn't just a cash grab to appeal to the thirty year old housewives who listened to Soundgarden in their prime. Nothing about it feels "cheap", and that's rare for veteran artists today.
King Animal, thankfully, is unmistakably NOT a "grunge" album. I like some grunge rock, but Soundgarden's niche lies in deceptively superficial sounding hard rock music with subtle traces of genius and artistry. That really does describe King Animal in the best way I can do it.
Now to go over notable songs. Been Away Too Long is a a great opener. It's not the best King Animal has to offer, but it's not bad at all. Bones of Birds is one of the softer pieces, and it works as well as anything from Down On the Upside. Rowing, the album's perfect closer, is the best thing here, and the most memorable, poignant track. Slow moving and yet brimming with energy, and a sense of tension-and-relief song structure. Halfway There is the only song that feels like it was written to be a single, and not a terribly effective one either. It's better than most of the singles that get released today, but that isn't saying much to its benefit.
King Animal follows the formula that any good album goes by religiously-Start with the second best song, end with the best song, and put good stuff in between. No filler, few if any forgettable tracks, great instrumentation, and overall just great music makes King Animal my favorite release of 2012, and I hope Soundgarden will continue to put out great material like this.