Soundgarden – King Animal
Label: Republic Records
Soundgarden, perhaps known as “that band that did Black Hole Sun”, left a big mark in rock music worldwide in the 90s in the rise and peak of grunge fascination. Although the band did get caught up in the whole Seattle grunge scene, along with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees, etc., Soundgarden had a big southern rock and metallic influence with their dirty approach to rock music.
Despite starting in 1984, it was only in 1991 that they experienced international success with undeniably great “Badmotorfinger”, and furthered that success with the fan favourite album “Superunknown” in 1994. Both albums launched the band to the front of music magazines around the globe, and gave the world rock anthems like Jesus Christ Pose, Rusty Cage, Spoonman and Fell On Black Days. However, the follow-up album, “Down On The Upside”, didn’t quite live up to the standards of the previous two albums, although achieving Platinum sales in the US, Canada and Australia. Tension in the band and clashes for future motives and directions of the music then culminated in their break-up in 1997.
This led to a series of new projects for each member; the most popular being vocalist Chris Cornell with Audioslave and his solo career. Guitarist Kim Thayil went an underground route, working with the likes of punk legend Jello Biafra, Dave Grohl’s collaborative project Probot and even featured on the Sunn O))) and Boris album “Altar”. Bassist Ben Shepard worked with another grunge idol Mark Lanegan and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, while drummer Matt Cameron momentarily joined The Smashing Pumpkins and eventually joining Pearl Jam full time.
Many years later, this leads us to now. In 2010, the guys decided to put past disputes aside and have reunited to give us their sixth album, finally releasing a new album “King Animal” in 2012. As expected, pressure is always on for a band that has built its own legacy and popularity worldwide, left and to return well over a decade with new material… and Soundgarden has done well.
The first track and single, Been Away Too Long, a title well chosen, starts the album in fourth gear and borrows a huge influence from Led Zeppelin with its guitar-driven sound and Chris Cornell’s signature raspy, old-school rock voice has aged a little, sounding a little coarser, but this only adds to the atmosphere. None-State Actor starts with a skipping and sliding bass, sounding a lot like something you might expect from a psychedelic stoner band, and is a lot more prominent in the overall mix than the guitar. There’s also the use of an organ keys and the good ol’ cowbell, furthering the old rock’n’roll vibes.
By Crooked Steps returns to a heavier sound that Soundgarden were known for before and features perhaps the most memorable riff; highlighting Thayil’s pretty intricate guitar within overlapping layers. It’s the nearest to their old song that you get on the album, and it’s great! On the other hand, the following track A Thousand Days Before is cleaner, and again its the skipping guitar lines that steal the show; however the rest of it can be a little forgettable.
Unfortunately this is the case for a few songs on the album, either due to forgettable lyrics/vocals and predictable song structures – something that Soundgarden had previously been known for being experimental in. Blood On The Valley turns out to be the prime example of this; just being a tad monotonous with its slow jam approach, and while it is relaxing it is ultimately skippable too. However, sixth track Bones Of Birds turns it around completely, despite being another slow song. The slightly distorted, lethargic guitars along with Cornell’s vocals creates a nice mellow yet thoughtful atmosphere that really grabs your attention without trying.
Taree continues the ballad section of the album, but dips back to the same dryness of Blood On The Valley, which is disappointing considering the heavy feel of Bones Of Birds. Thankfully, Attrition picks up the pace of the album again with a seductive ZZ Top-like groove, Cornell’s vocals floating soothingly over the top of the driving instrumental. Black Saturday sees the band mostly acoustic, and it hooks you in with opening’s bongos and lines “Promise something / Kill me right away if I start to get slow / Don’t remember / How to separate the worm from the apple / Don’t wait ’til tomorrow”. Although the subject matter sounds dark, the delivery of it feels nothing but enlightening; easily making up for the previous dud tracks.
Then Halfway There is probably the most up-beat sounding song on the album, especially with lines like “Sometimes when you’re shooting an arrow it can fly across the sky so proud”. The guitar tone that appeared on their hit Black Hole Sun also emerges on this track, which works well with the reminiscent feel of the track. Tenth track Worse Dreams opens with low guitar sweeps as a lead drones on top; soon drums and the bass comes in with Cornell coming in last, slowly swelling into big rockin’ chorus. The track just has a real playful feel to it.
Eyelid’s Mouth starts off mellow with guitar effects and a jamming drum, before the the guitar settles into a lead groove backed by the bass, with backing vocals supporting Cornell on “Who let the water run down / Who let the river run dry” – making the track brooding yet enjoyable. The final track, Rowing, stands out in comparison with the rest of the album and an odd choice for a closer: the drums have an electronic yet live feel to them, with a low, fast-rolling bass (in very short bursts) but the vocal melody resonates the blues – it’s almost as if the band are prisoners working on building a railway in the warm sun. The track then fades out the same as it started, leaving you unsure of what you’ve just heard.
Overall, this seems like the lighter direction that Cornell had been fighting for towards their break-up all those years ago, because this album in comparison to the likes of “Badmotorfinger” and “Superunknown” is a big shift to a more mainstream sound; but it isn’t the bad thing. Yes, Soundgarden seem to have lost the grit and edge that made their music so impossible to turn down on “King Animal”, but they’ve proven that they can master the the more softer aesthetics of rock music just as well. Perhaps this is just a sign of the band warming up and cracking their knuckles for the future.
As I said, some tracks do come across as a bit linear and boring, but overall the album is pretty good as a whole. The experimental side is lacking, and again, it isn’t as heavy as some of their earlier material, but it’s a promising return for Soundgarden and certain tracks more than make up for the forgettable. For 13 years of being apart, this is a pretty solid release.
Favourite tracks: Black Saturday, By Crooked Steps, Bones Of Birds.
Review by Rich Reviewz