“Anticipation” doesn’t begin to describe the feelings that were building inside me when I first heard back in 2010 that Soundgarden was recording a new album and then again when I later heard it would be out this year. Soundgarden set the tone for the grunge scene in 1991 with Badmotorfinger and then completely dismantled it just three years later with Superunknown. In my opinion, they are one of the most important bands in the history of popular music and could very easily be considered my generation’s Led Zeppelin (but that’s a topic of discussion for another time).
This is all about King Animal, the first album from the Seattle-based alt rock group Soundgarden since 1996’s Down on the Upside. With so much time between recordings, such a great second-to-last album with Superunknown, and so many years of lost practice time between band members, I think it would be fair to say that some people, including myself, were afraid that Soundgarden might rush the album in order to capitalize on the news of the band getting back together, which in turn would leave us with something that wasn’t up to par, Soundgarden-wise.
Cornell expressed concerns himself with this very issue saying, “We didn’t seem to need to reunite in terms of we put away Soundgarden in a very kind of triumphant and complete way.” Cornell goes on to say, “It was a matter of us being in a room together and then becoming comfortable and starting to take on a responsibility for reconnecting with our fans based on our old material and considering doing reissues…And that led to us finally deciding to play a show and then tour and then a new album.” So you have one of the greatest bands making music for their fans — that sounds like a recipe for success, and it truly is with regards to King Animal.
Soundgarden makes a statement with the very first song, “Been Away Too Long,” setting the mood for the rest of the album. The production on this song is a little too glossy for me, but the energy is there, and I like the idea of making a statement with the opening track. It’s heavy, it’s groovy, and it has that strange, time shifty, Soundgarden thing (which is all over this album) every time they transition into a different part of the song. It’s a great starting place for a reintroduction album and leads nicely into the next song.
“Non-State Actor” starts off with one of the funkiest guitar riffs of 2012 and marks the first time you get to hear that classic Cornell thunder scream/growl. The song seems to drip with a weighted swagger all while trying to make you a little bit more aware of certain corrupt parts of our society. It’s almost like a pimp doing a PSA against capitalism — two worlds that usually don’t go together — but Soundgarden makes them seem like they have been married for years.
“By Crooked Steps” is another song with a riff that could melt the face off a poltergeist. It’s heavy, it’s shifty, but it’s not clumsy; in fact, it’s almost so ridged and full of pop structures done with nontraditional time signatures that it makes the song seem elastic and stretching outward at times. The way the music gallops along while Cornell’s vocals sit back and tango with the rhythm of it all…it’s a beautiful thing to listen to.
“A Thousand Days Before” is one of my favorite songs off King Animal. There are no heavy riffs full of various melting powers and the message is relatively simple, and I think that’s what I enjoy about the song. The rhythmic, worldly pulse of the verses and the odd-ball transitions from Thayil and company combined with Cornell’s soaring vocal style is like the foundations of the pyramids to me: classic, everlasting, universal. It’s a short break from the heaviness that Soundgarden has injected into their new album without going completely away from their new direction.
“Blood On The Valley Floor” is one of the heaviest songs on the album and includes another of my favorite riffs. It just oozes nostalgia while maintaining a sense of being new, with grunge-era-meets-hardcore time signatures. Think “4th of July” meets “My Head,” and you have a good idea of what to expect. Soundgarden has never really been known to me as a “riff” band, but by this point in the album, they are doing it just as well as RATM or Pantera.
“Bones of Birds” is another short break from the monster riffage, and once again, it’s another one of my favorite songs off King Animal. It offers a look at Soundgarden in a very mature direction. Cornell seems to float through the song sonically like an astronaut drifting through space. When the keyboard comes in behind the music in a sort of accent role, it almost puts me in another world. The bass crawling on the floor, Cornell floating through the clouds, and the rest of the band holding the two together is a musical direction that I hope Soundgarden pursues much more in the future, and the song is a very welcomed addition to the riff fest that has been the album up until then.
If you were the person that sat in his or her room trying to match Cornell’s voice perfectly, like I did back in the ’90s, then you will probably love “Taree.” After listening to the album for the first time, I immediately identified the track right away as one of my favorite vocal patterns on the record. That bluesy, down-throated sway that Cornell has going on in this song makes the entire thing for me, and you will definitely find yourself humming along with the note progressions even without knowing the lyrics.
“Black Saturday,” one of the softer cuts on the album, is a strange and inviting song. It has a way of pulling you in based upon your assumptions of what the song will sound like and then flipping those assumptions upside down. It shows you how taking a bunch of simple things and layering them together can result in something complex (if you do it the right way, which Soundgarden definitely does).
To me, “Halfway There” is a weird song to be included on this album. It kind of sounds like the theme song for a romantic comedy and completely breaks my train of thought while listening to King Animal. Out of all the songs on the album, I could probably have done without “Halfway There,” but it doesn’t completely ruin the album. I feel like it could also be a song that grows on you.
“Worse Dreams” resumes the heavy attitude that kicked the record off. Structurally it’s a pretty amazing song, starting off very spacey and light. The music dances around a centered Cornell, who is chanting a rhythm that sets the pace for the song, which eventually explodes into a classic Soundgarden break.
Despite having one of the strangest names on the record, “Eyelids Mouth” is one of the most straightforward songs on King Animal. It’s not a letdown song and has the vibe of a song that grows on you the longer you listen to it, but at this point in my listening experience, it seems like the blandest song on an album full of jewels.
Soundgarden saves the best for last with “Rowing,” King Animal’s album closer. I feel like it’s the perfect example of old and new coming together to create one hell of an awesome closing track. It includes the vocal harmony stuff that a lot of the bands nowadays love to utilize, and it has that classically ominous feel that Soundgarden seems to cultivate on every record.
King Animal is an album I feel like Soundgarden can be very proud of. A lot of people were expecting them to fall flat on their faces with bands like Metallica and U2 messing this kind of stuff up for a lot of other ’90s bands, but Soundgarden has managed to successfully release a record that meets the standard set by the rest of their discography. I don’t think King Animal is the best album they have every recorded, but it’s not a regression from Superunknown.
Thankfully, King Animal doesn’t feel like an album Soundgarden just put out for money. It has passion, it has new ideas, and it has a sense of wonderment and exploration about the music that leads you to believe that the band members still very much so enjoy making music together, which was one of the most important things about the new release for me. Most importantly, however, the album has me pumped for what could be the second life of one of America’s greatest rock bands of all time and a return to a heavier sound that the music scene has been in dire need of.
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