Soundgarden has been reunited as a live and recording band since 2010. In those two years, they’ve headlined festivals such as Voodoo Experience, Hard Rock Calling and Download. Their live performances have been a greatest hits collection of their now classic 90s grunge masterpieces. And here we are now, two decades out of their mainstream dominance, with their new album King Animal. Things change in 16 years, but King Animal tries it’s best to move forward while still capturing the energy of the decade that made them significant.
It’s been a long journey getting to King Animal. Soundgarden’s iconic frontman and voice, Chris Cornell, has kept things interesting in the 2000s. Audioslave was the world’s biggest super band for a time, but their predictable formula for arena rock became stagnant after the first album. Then there was the disaster of Scream– by disaster I mean the type that causes mass extinctions of species. Things were starting to fall off the map, but then Chris started getting back to basics. He played some solo shows with long time friend and musical collaborator Alain Johannes. Soundgarden reformed, and instantly headlined festivals around the world. With all of the recent success starting to flow in, you could just feel a new album brewing. Well, here it is- King Animal.
When the album is flowing, there’s an energy to the songs that make you take notice and keep you on guard. That’s the beauty of Cornell’s voice- it adds urgency to each song and make it feel like every chorus and word represents a specific and fleeting moment in the world of Soundgarden. “By Crooked Steps” is one of those songs, driving the pace forward with an unashamed repetitive riff and some simple lyrical cliches, but the sound as a whole works. “Non-State Actor” is a similar track with a clear purpose to be a single that could probably find itself in an action movie within the next month. Of the two, “By Crooked Steps” pushes more boundaries musically and adds a hint of genuine craftsmanship that doesn’t yell “play me on the radio!” so obviously:
Now for the bad, and here’s a warning before you listen to these songs, they are really bad. The worst of the bunch is “Attrition”. Long time Soundgarden fans should stay far away from one of the most unbearable tracks ever recorded by the band. There’s a “hooo hooo” at the end, that if you make it that far, will make you reach for the skip button as fast as possible. “Halfway There” sounds like the band is halfway to becoming an adult alternative foursome. Yes, the original fans who launched the band to stardom are older, but there’s no excuse for a cookie cutter like this that your Mom and Dad will probably think is a pretty cool tune. The track is simply too easy, too soft and so very tame:
The least of the evils is “Been Away Too Long”. Another far from difficult song choice, that makes the painfully obvious statement that it sure has been a long time since Soundgarden has released a new album. We know that, but you would think the song could have made fans a bit more excited about the band’s first album in 16 years. The track comes off as Velvet Revolver light with Kim Thayil giving up on his best Slash impression only a few seconds in.
While the first ten tracks are a mixed bag with enough to keep you entertained and some powerful throwbacks by Cornell and Thayil, the final three attempts are the most interesting and the ones you’ll come back to more often than not. “Worse Dream” is a deep burning experience that builds to a feverish Cornell chorus:
“Like a doll from a bad dream, When it’s gone worse dreams are born.”
The closing breakdowns from Matt Cameron on drums and tempo changes from Ben Shepherd push the track to a very likeable plateau of chaos. It would be hard not to find a fan of the track- young and old. “Eyelids Mouth” throws it back to the faithful with a huge and heavy chorus from Cornell. Yes, the lyrics fall too often on the side of silly, but it’s enough fun to forgive the lack of creativity in word choice. King Animal comes to a close with “Rowing”. Take a listen to the first minute and I can bet that most fans will start to cower in fear that Chris Cornell decided to put a Scream B-side on this album. But wait… it actually grows on you? Oh yes it does. This is a completely new direction for Soundgarden, with a very different delivery from Cornell. It takes a few listens, but it stays with you when you start going back to listen to the album again. The flowing melody and precision vocals from Cornell float perfectly together on what is the most unique and surprisingly great track of the album. After 12 songs in, I had my doubts that Soundgarden could pull a track like “Rowing” off, but they did.
Unlike the album cover, Soundgarden is no longer a desolate pile of bones in a sea of once-great 90s bands. They were giants during their time- a mammoth that propelled rock and roll into an era of extensive classification and regeneration. As a live band, they are still festival top-billing material, and their expansive catalogue of hits is challenged by very few touring bands today. King Animal gives the band a new purpose even though the bones that built the beast can not help but creak and crack in today’s world. Regardless, the foundation is clearly still viable in King Animal to make Soundgarden more than a purely nostalgic act.
~ Ultimately saved by it’s final 3 tracks, Soundgarden’s first album in 16 years doesn’t resurrect the beast, but does give it some ground, although shaky, to stand on once again.