Review Summary: Though not a classic, Soundgarden have produced a surprisingly solid comeback
After 15 years, Seattle grunge titans Soundgarden have returned with their sixth studio album, King Animal. The band reunited at the beginning of 2010, and there have been flashes of what was to come since then: the rerecorded 1991 outtake “Black Rain” was released in 2010, and the band contributed the song “Live to Rise” for the Avengers soundtrack. These were good songs, but the quality of a full comeback album was still in doubt. While it is not on the level of classics like Superunknown or Badmotorfinger, and there are no songs as strong and instantly memorable as “Jesus Christ Pose” or “The Day I Tried to Live,” King Animal is a comeback that is surprising in just how solid it is.
The members of Soundgarden have had wildly different careers since the band broke up in 1997. Drummer Matt Cameron became a permanent member of Pearl Jam. Bassist Ben Shepherd released albums as the frontman of the Wellwater Conspiracy, featuring Cameron and former Monster Magnet guitarist John McBain. Kim Thayil, the guitarist who is largely responsible for Soundgarden’s uniqueness, mostly disappeared from the public eye, occasionally surfacing as a guest musician on albums by experimental metal bands such as Sunn O))) and Boris.
Of course, Soundgarden would not have achieved their level of popularity without vocalist Chris Cornell. One of the most powerful rock vocalists in history during his prime, Cornell has had an up-and-down career over the past decade-and-a-half. He fronted the supergroup Audioslave with members of Rage Against the Machine, which sold well but was often critically panned. In 2009, he collaborated with Timbaland on the ill-advised pop album Scream.
With Cornell’s career on a downswing and the average age of the members being around 48, expectations were not high for King Animal. But the album avoids most of the problems that one would expect. Whereas Cornell’s attempts at screaming in Audioslave were often painful to listen to, he has reined in his voice here, relying more on his still-beautiful singing voice. He still has power that shines through on heavier numbers like “Blood on the Valley Floor,” but he no longer tries to reach for notes he hasn’t hit since 1994.
Instrumentally, King Animal is a solid hard rock album. Thayil still has a knack for odd-timed heavy riffs, but the music is more driving than plodding, differentiating it from the bands more Black Sabbath-influenced early days. For the first time since Badmotorfinger, brass instruments make an appearance on “Black Saturday” and “By Crooked Steps,” but they are strictly complementary. Cameron’s drumming is more straightforward than it used to be, but he still provides one of the strongest backbones in rock. Shepherd, like too many bass players today, is buried in the mix. While his basslines are solid, he is frequently difficult to hear, even when he has a lead part like in the beginning of “Worse Dreams.”
The first and second halves of the King Animal are somewhat different. Most of the album’s first eight tracks are rockers, dominated by Thayil’s riffs, Cameron’s pounding drums and Cornell’s gravelly vocals. Starting with “Black Saturday,” however, the album takes a different turn. The songs on the second half have a wider variety of styles, weirder instrumentation and shifting song structures. The last few tunes offer a calm respite from the pounding hard rock of the first half, culminating in “Rowing,” and its hypnotic chorus of “don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing/I just keep on pulling, gotta row.”
Overall, King Animal is one of 2012’s most pleasant surprises. Soundgarden successfully play to their strengths instead of trying to recapture the energy of Badmotorfinger or the creativity of Superunknown. King Animal is a worthy addition to the discography of one of the best bands of the last 25 years.