After disbanding 16 years ago, and pursuing their own projects and gigs in other bands, Soundgarden has reunited and released their first album in a long time. It might be easy to cynically write off the reunion of a band whose lead singer swore that a reunion would “tarnish their legacy” as a simple middle aged cash grab. The only problem with that assertion is that unlike the multitudes of bands that break up, retire, reunite, and then go through the whole thing over and over again (a la KISS and Ozzy Osborne), Soundgarden have written and recorded some of the best music of their previous and current careers on King Animal.
The defining sound of grunge for many Gen X listeners, Soundgarden was one of the bands that achieved superstardom alongside other Seattle based grunge acts like Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam (whose “grunge” description is highly suspect). Loaded with moody lyrics, thundering drums, dropped-D tuned guitars, and bouncing from metal to punk rock stylings, at times from one song to the next. Soundgarden’s music was once truly not only the veritable definition of grunge, but of alternative rock. Now, while still edgy sounding and light years better than most contemporary bands that shamelessly (and poorly) ape their style, Soundgarden’s music is a staple of the mainstream. Fortunately, Chris Cornell, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron, and Kim Thayil have stuck to their proverbial musical guns by sticking to their chosen sound. That was what was so great about the Seattle bands. Rarely did they change their sound to keep up with the rock or pop flavor of the month sound. Soundgarden was never one to do this (although Cornell would during his solo career). King Animal is loaded with the drone and alternating metal to punk energies that they’ve always remained true to.
“Been Away Too Long” opens the album with the declaration that Soundgarden is not just back, they are back to rock. Decidedly harder than their first new song released since their reunion, Marvel’s The Avengers’ “Live to Rise,” “Been Away Too Long” is quite simply the opening salvo in what just might be the greatest comeback album of all time. “Non-State Actor” is classic Soundgarden drone. It’s thick and chunky and a bit slower than the punk leaning “Been Away Too Long.” Right away the band lets us know that they still can slide effortlessly between genre infusions. Cornell also waxes metaphorically political here as well with lyrics like “Motherless country of the I sing,” “We’ll settle for a little but more than everything” and “We’re not the chosen, but we believe” pretty effectively capturing the mindset of the non-state actor.
“By Crooked Steps” opens with a riff that is full of fits and starts. It is also a little less hard than the opening few tracks, but with its echoing bridge guitar coupled with its awkward sound and overall feel, “By Crooked Steps” just might be one of the few art-metalish songs the band has ever produced. The music is as crooked as the steps Cornell sings about, but comes together to provide its listeners with a complete sonic experience. “A Thousand Days Before” is a grinder with a slight tinge of Indian and Middle Eastern musical influences in it. Thayil’s guitar playing rings with the classic Soundgarden sound, but he manages to push this sound into Beatlesque territory now and again with the cultural flavorings. “A Thousand Days Before” is almost like a grunge version of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “Blood on the Valley Floor” is the album’s first full-on heavy grinder and is reminiscent of the best of Soundgarden’s heaviest music. Atmospheric singing and heavy detuned “wall of sound” guitar playing in the grandest of the band’s tradition make “Blood on the Valley Floor” the type of Soundgarden song that will have the most diehard fans (and their detractors) joyously announcing that yes indeed, Soundgarden is back. It also has the albums best bridge and inspired soloing.
“Bones of Birds” is a slow, slow, slow song and completely downshifts the album’s momentum. Soundgarden often displays the tendency to allow a song to barely move along and “Bones of Birds” is one of these tracks. It’s the slowest song on the album (although it does have its flourishes), but has some of the most introspective lyrics that a middle-aged rocker could come up with: “Time is my friend, well it ain’t, it runs out.” “Taree” is another slow one that absolutely soars on its inspired Thayil solo and it’s slightly bluesy and southern rockish riffs. “Attrition” highlights Cameron’s excellent drumming skills. I’m still convinced he’s the best drummer to emerge from the whole Seattle scene of twenty years ago. It also features some of Cornell’s most droning singing. It’s the song on the album that is most infused with a punk energy. It reminds one of “Kickstand” and “Ty Cobb” off of Superunknown and Down on The Upside.
“Black Saturday” (I’m convinced that there cannot be a single Soundgarden album that doesn’t at least reference the word black somehow somewhere) displays the album’s most prominent acoustic guitar and stripped down bass and drums. When the electric guitar does break onto the scene though, it’s pure grunge goodness. Cornell sings about being born again: “then cut out any memory of me breathing till I’m born again.” The song’s lyrics are almost like a declaration one images Jesus making during his mythical trip through Hell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. “Halfway There” keeps up the acoustic guitar and theme of travel and rebirth. It’s the lightest song on the album, which unfortunately might make it the most radio airplay worthy (yes, radio does still exist). It’s got some more of Thayil’s great soloing in it though which keeps it edgy. Cornell’s lyrics seem slightly inspired by William Blake here, “Some born to move mountains around, and some born to rot away in jail.” “Worse Dreams” fades sonically into and out of focus slowly like its thematic dreams. There’s plenty of that awesome Soundgarden drone showcased here as well. “Eyelids Mouth” is loaded with the typical Soundgarden grind, but focuses on Shepherd and Cameron’s powerful rhythm section.
Closing out the album is “Rowing,” perhaps the most experimental yet powerful song on the album. It’s powerful existential lyrics and semi bluesy and soulful opening, with its almost R&B like drumming all come together to create a rhythm reminiscent the song’s title. When Cornell begins to sing about the rising water, Thayil’s thick guitar riffing simultaneously rises. Cornell sings, “Don’t know where I’m goin I just keep rowing/Rowing is living and living is hard/but living beats losing all that we are/All that we know of and all that we feel/All we remember, imagined or real.” This song finishes incredibly strong and in a sonically uplifting way (for Soundgarden). Soundgarden saved their most poignant and powerful statement for last. Hopefully King Animal, arguably their most poignant and powerful album, worth the 16 year wait, won’t be their last.
Review Appeared Originally at Shutter16.com