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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.
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.