Review Summary: A worthy return that flies in the face of expectations
It's been a real mixed bag of treats for the Soundgarden members since their somewhat less than amicable but not entirely acrimonious split in 1997.
Kim Thayil, their lead guitarist, who was always more interested in adding texture and dissonance to the Soundgarden canon than typical metal solo's, effectively semi-retired. In the decade after the band's split, he mostly limited himself to guest appearances. Most notably he formed a short lived punk band with Jello Biafra, intended to protest the WTO conference in Seattle in 1999, imaginatively monikered The No WTO Combo and sharpened his trusty axe on the Dave Grohl led Probot album. Throughout this period it always seemed that Thayil was enjoying the free time that being without a full time band enabled him to have. Perhaps by 2012, Thayil was ready for the day to day grind of being in a full time band again.
Ben Shepherd packed up his long slung bass and headed off to a number of similarly low key activities and appearances, contributing to Josh Homme's Desert Sessions and Matt Cameron's Wellwater Conspiracy in the late 90's and early 00's. According to the man himself he was completely broke by 2010 and couch surfing through various friends houses. As such, it's no shocker that Shepherd was enthused by the idea of a reunion which would undoubtedly garnish him a very handsome fee.
As luck would have it, Matt Cameron found himself at loose end when Pearl Jam enlisted him to pick the sticks to replace Jack Irons who left Pearl Jam shortly before their 1998 summer tour. After he joined the band, Pearl Jam's music became rather staid and workmanlike. Albums like Binaural and Bankspacer paled in comparison to their catalog highlights No Code and Vitalogy. His drumming seems ill fitted to Pearl Jam, too stiff and at odds with their more jam orientated sensibilities. Regardless, he has now been pounding away for Pearl Jam for 14 years and seems to be the last drummer in the Spinal Tap-esque history of Pearl Jam drummers. However, a Soundgarden reunion allows him to stretch his more natural muscles in a unit that seems to be custom built for his strengths.
Cornell has clearly had the most high profile and checkered post-Soundgarden career. To say his musical ventures have been somewhat surprising would be an understatement. It all began, promisingly enough, with Euphoria Morning, his solo album from 1999. It quickly deteriorated from here. The thing about Cornell's career post Soundgarden is that just when you felt he couldn't sink any lower, he did his absolute to prove you wrong. Firstly, he started the less than the sum of its parts supergroup Audioslave with the members of Rage Against the Machine that didn't rap. The resultant albums were commercial successes but RATM's grove and funk was constantly at odds with Cornell's classic rock leanings. After the dissolution of the group in 2007, Cornell released another two solo albums. The first a bland and eminently forgettable collection of radio rock fodder that was soon consigned to the bargain bins. Just as fans felt Cornell could not possibly sink any lower, he managed to find himself an afore unseen nadir in the form of the collaboration album Scream. His collaborator was Timbaland. Needless to say this collaboration was fruitless, with Cornell sounding like a creepy middle aged man who leers over the garden wall into the next door neighbours sweet sixteenth. Undoubtedly, reuniting Soundgarden promised an opportunity for Cornell to claw back some credibility and respect.
After reuniting in early 2010, the band toured and recorded for two and a half years before releasing "Live to Rise" and "Been Away Too Long". Both of these songs lack all that fundamentally made Soundgarden awesome, originally. Namely, their ability to write incredibly memorable and infectious songs without pandering to the mainstream audience. In essence, Soundgarden never dumbed it down. Flying in the face of this, the two new songs are lowest common denominator fare, callously designed to pull in fans of the abomination that is Post-Grunge. Essentially, at this point, I was prepared and in fact had resigned myself to receiving a bland, coma inducing selection of Soundgarden-lite on King Animal.
I was wrong. Right from the groovy and heavy opening of Non-State Actor I knew the Soundgarden I had loved all those years ago was back. Where they older" Yes. Wiser" No doubt. Altered" Absolutely. However, they are by no means blunted and dulled into a novelty act like some other bands of a similar vintage who have reunited. After the disappointment of the first song the album wheels along at an energetic pass for the first six songs. Highlights are undoubtedly the eastern tinged "A Thousand Days Before" and the dirge-like "Blood On The Valley Floor". The former sports an uncharacteristic upbeat melody that has an almost shimmering quality that most closely resembles "Burden in my Hand", itself a highlight of "Down on the Upside". The latter, a lumbering number that draws to mind "Mailman" from "Superunknown".
These segue into the more low-key and considered second half of the album. It seems like an evolution of "Down on the Upside"; essentially it sounds like the album they would have released in 1998. Songs like "Bones of Birds" and "Eyelids Mouth" are especially reminiscent of the psychedelic flavour of Soundgarden's previous studio outing. There is also time for an acoustic detour. "Black Saturday" is in the vein of "Seasons", Cornell's contribution to the Singles soundtrack, but isn't quite as intent on creating a sombre and reflective mood. Instead it is more trippy and has a kind of stoner pop vibe. Next is "Halfway There" which unfortunately includes Cornell's, misguided radio-ready fodder that has plagued his recent solo work. However, this doesn't derail the album as the song is inoffensive enough and has enough of the positive qualities of "Euphoria Morning" to make it a passable track.
The album is not completely a consolidation of it's precursors. A hint of experimentation and progression is present in the final track on the album. "Rowing" begins with a flowing bass riff akin to "Schism" by Tool. However in contrast to that song, "Rowing" doesn't build to an epic crescendo but simply cruises the album to a content close. Coming off as a grunge version of a soul song, the mood and melody are perfectly suited to Cornell's croon.
Soundgarden sound enthused and inspired. King Animal includes the best music that any of the band members have been involved in since their dissolution and that in itself is something to celebrate. What remains to be seen is if they can built on this foundation and try to add to their mighty empire in the future. This album is salvation for all the members; some more so than others. It's an exciting time to be in Soundgarden.