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They’re back, and they’ve been back for a few years now. Soundgarden makes a triumphant return with King Animal, delivering music of as high quality as ever. This easily fits in the top half of their discography, falling short of the more “classic” Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, but besting everything else.
The album is a good length – not dragging towards the end like Down on the Upside, their previous release, and remaining relatively consistent in value throughout its fifty-two minutes. There’s been no loss of their style over the fifteen years since their breakup, despite the album’s healthy but not dramatic variation between songs.
King Animal reopens the Soundgarden story on the perfect note with Been Away Too Long, which indeed they have. It’s a high-energy piece, with singer Cornell shrieking away just as well as ever. And after this song? It’s a Soundgarden album. They stay true to the sound they established prior to their breakup in the nineties and their reformation.
They continue to play with the odd time signatures, demonstrated in By Crooked Steps, a straightforward rock song, except it’s in 5/4. (I must mention the music video for this – it features segways.) Psychedelic influences are present, primarily in A Thousand Days Before, and scattered throughout other songs. Blood on the Valley Floor has an absolutely earth-shaking riff – if I can pinpoint one riff that pointed me towards heavy metal, this would be the one. Worse Dreams sounds like it could be straight off Superunknown, turning chaotic and frenzied toward the end in true Soundgarden fashion. The album also features some more acoustic-based tracks: Black Saturday and Halfway There. The latter, while a remnant from Cornell’s solo career, still manages to sound good if not slightly too upbeat.
The only song here that seems out of place is the closer, Rowing. It’s more atmospheric than anything else heard from the band, helped along by the plodding, ominous bass line and the dark lyrics. These lyrics are the only ones Soundgarden has written that actually stand out to me, and I have no idea what inspired them to write something with such a clear, almost urgent meaning. The beginning, also featuring a drum track, builds into a more recognizably Soundgarden-style middle. Right before Kim unleashes one of his trademark liquid-sounding solos, Cornell lets loose a scream that, if you weren’t convinced by all the previous tracks that he still has his voice, should do the trick. It’s different, but Rowing is a definite highlight, worth hearing not only because it’s a good song, but because Soundgarden experiments with atmosphere.
King Animal is the glorious return of a legendary grunge band. It’s still them, no matter how much time has passed, and it competes with their more popular works. Not to be missed by any fan.
Soundgarden are a band that was involved with the grunge explosion of the 90’s. Names like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots were popular at the time. The Seattle based Soundgarden along with Alice in Chains were often considered grunge but with metal and hard rock tendencies. This assessment is quite accurate when both bands had plenty of radio hits and more mellow moments.
Soundgarden had a string of albums in the 90’s that are considered rock classics like Superunknown and Badmotorfinger. The variety of influences ranging from the Beatles to Zeppelin and even the mighty Sabbath were prominently displayed during this time. Some consider Superunknown to be their absolute pinnacle and is often cited as a masterpiece. After Superunknown we were treated to another album called Down on the Upside which did not quite hold up. Everything would spiral down after the release of that album and Soundgarden would be no more.
Fast forward to 2012 and the mighty Soundgarden would return with an album interestingly titled King Animal. About 16 years after Down on the Upside, the classic years Soundgarden involving returned to their past glories. Chris Cornell has always been a great singer in the past, but with King Animal he proved that he is still versatile and powerful. Matt Cameron is just one of the best drummers to ever grace this planet. Kim Thayil has a mix of punk and Iommi influenced riffs while Shephard holds it all in place. Even with the years of separation, it is easy to tell the bond these four musicians built over the years. King Animal could easily have been a flop or sound entirely like a Chris Cornell solo album but luckily that is not the case. King Animal is like they never really broke up and is what Soundgarden would have sounded like in 2012.
King Animal has everything that Soundgarden fans have been drooling for. We have hard rockers like By Crooked Steps, psychedelic numbers like A Thousand Days Before and bone crushing heavy riffs like in Blood on the Valley Floor. Unfortunately there are some clunkers that sound like Cornell solo albums like Halfway There, but for the most part the album is classic Soundgarden. Almost every song has that classic album flavor without it becoming just a greatest hits copy yourself album. The ideas for this album are fresh and as I stated before, they sound like Soungarden would in 2012 if they never had broken up.
It is absolutely apparent the Soundgarden outdid expectations here with King Animal. While it is by no means a perfect album, it is a welcomed edition to the Soundgarden family. The strengths mightily outweigh the weaknesses on this album by a mile. In my assessment only 3 out of the 13 songs were subpar including Halfway There, NonState Actor and Attrition. For me this album is not quite a masterpiece, but it exceeded expectations by a long shot! They had in fact been away too long for my tastes.
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.