Review Summary: Soundgarden returns with an album that should please fans but not likely to win over any new listeners....
It is best to let the dust settle a bit when such a groundbreaking act as Soundgarden puts out an album 16 years since their last proper album. Patience is a virtue and Soundgarden fans have been VERY patient waiting on this album to come out. It is not as if they have not had their Chris Cornell fix with him fronting Audioslave, as well as, putting out some very sterile solo albums. But now he is back with the band that preceded the grunge movement and a band that put out music that will last much longer than so many of the flavor-of-the-month 90's bands.
If we suspend reality for one moment and let's just say, this was their first album...it would be a hell of a debut album. But it is not. This is a band that is tried and true and has created some of the finest hard rock, hell, since there was such a thing as hard rock. Chris Cornell's vocal range rivals the greatest of hard rock singers and the band itself is a machine, creating an almost otherworldly sound for Cornell to sing over. Cornell said it himself, 'there is no one trying to be another Soundgarden because we are impossible to imitate.'
This is not their debut album though, this is an album from seasoned veterans who have created a back log of albums that still sound fresh today. Before writing this review, as a fan, I made myself listen to this album many times through. I couldn't tell you one song title or track number to skip to that I just absolutely loved. The songs are solid, the strange time signatures still there, Thayil's sixth sense of adding just the right lick is still locked into place...but somehow it all comes off as rather dull. Unfortunately, Cornell's voice sounds weak and even strained at some points. I don't expect a man pushing 50 to sing like he did when he was 25, but hell, he still has a great voice it just seems to fall short on some of the tracks.
The instant consensus would be that a fan, such as myself, just expects another Blackhole Sun, Outshined, or even the vocal acrobatics of Slaves and Bulldozers. However, songs such as 4th of July or Fell on Black Days are just powerful in their dark subdued vibe. It is not a matter of the lack of speed, heavy guitars, or Robert Plant style screaming....this album just comes off tired. The flurry of reviews that hit the web this minute this album was released almost felt like we should be grateful they released a new album, as it was a gift. If they had never released another album the few albums they put out created a legacy unmatched by any of their 90's counterparts.
I think back to Alice In Chains return. Although, ultimately, it offered up nothing really new, the songwriting was on par with their past releases even if it wasn't another Dirt or Jar of Flies. It was solid, consistent, and had some singularly strong songs. I struggle to find any truly stand out tracks on this album, as it seems to plod along, mixed with Soundgarden's gift of integrating strange riffs, off-time tempos, and Cornell's dark introspective lyrics.
All is not lost, as there are some good songs on here, and as many have said, this music has much more depth than any current 'radio fodder'. However, just because they released a better album than the new Nickelback or Shinedown doesn't make me feel obliged to throw a 4 or 5 at them.
I want to leave this on a positive note and I am not saying this album is a total wash. Though it may not be the Soundgarden of yore....it IS the Soundgarden of 2012 and these guys are still more creative than the bands half their age churning out cookie cutter drivel.
Some moments I found that really shine on this album are
A Thousand Days Before - really showcasing their penchant for mixing eastern style riffs with strange time signatures
Bones of Birds - the real standout - just a great song with a dark eerie vibe
Rowing - a slow start to an absolute jam session by the end, really showing what I would have like to have heard more of