Well Chris, I couldn’t have put it better myself. You certainly have been away for too long… 16 years to be exact. In that time, you’ve made hay with Audioslave, performed a Bond theme and managed to release a quite simply dire solo album that we’ll not mention any further. Meanwhile, your bandmates have dabbled in a few side projects, and Pearl Jam has kept Matt Cameron sharper than a cat with a flick knife…
With regards to the announcement of a new album, everything pointed to one thing. They’re merely doing it for the cash, and that there is no way they’d be able to revitalise the brilliance of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown. Bassist Ben Shepherd, in 2010, stated in an interview with Spin Magazine that he’d been reduced to sleeping on friend’s sofas, and was “totally broke”, so surely King Animal is an album released for the sake of releasing one?
Well, believe it or not, it defies all of the above odds. This is a record that is as Soundgarden as anything before it, encapsulating everything in their back catalogue and showing the sort of progression and chemistry that has characterized them since Ultramega OK hit the shelves in 1988. Cornell’s screech is as strong and agonising as ever, Thayil’s riffs are as sui-generis as the Outshineds, the 4th of Julys and the Beyond the Wheels of the glory days, Cameron is as much of a steamroller as he always has been, and Shepherd has certainly not wasted any time on friend’s sofas, and used his time there to become more of a groove machine!
The music of King Animal itself starts off with an almost ironic, radio-friendly message that could be construed as a dig at the doubters. In a way it is a fitting opening to an album surrounded by so much pessimism, and a brave move from the band nonetheless. I got nowhere to go and it seems I came back / Just filling in the lines for the holes and the cracks is a snippet of Cornell’s attitude towards the buzz surrounding King Animal’s release, but Been Away Too Long is ultimately an upbeat, clinical introduction to an album that has a thousand more strings to its bow. It’s with second track Non-State Actor that King Animal first begins to showcase that Soundgarden have released this album with all the intentions of rekindling the music, and start to fulfil the personal hype I’ve had regarding King Animal’s release since their scintillating set at Download 2012.
Non-State Actor follows a cymbal count that oozes anticipation with a Kim Thayil riff more fiddly than Fiddle McFiddle’s fiddle concert, and immediately gives the few that were convinced King Animal would be another bit of Soundgarden gold dust that sense of smugness. Cornell’s voice is flawless, and although it’s not as brooding as early 90’s recording equipment made it sound, it is still unmistakable and is to Thayil’s guitar what a full-bodied red is to a T-bone steak. The following By Crooked Steps is another track that raises anticipation before Thayil gives you an aural reprimand, showcasing the bewildering time signatures that are a hallmark of the band and a gentle reminder of the landscape Soundgarden strived to canvas all those years ago.
King Animal without doubt exceeds all expectations. Although some tracks will not be as memorable as others, the album maintains a sense of coagulation throughout, capturing the sounds of not only their former selves, but of genres that have taken on mantles since the demise of grunge, with the excellence of the execution obvious in the musical progression Soundgarden display on this record. A highlight worth mentioning is undoubtedly Blood on the Valley Floor, which weighs in at track 5. Immediately, the listener will be greeted by a vivid image of Kim Thayil in a practice room, thrashing out this hearty riff, sneering in total self-indulgence at the sonic cocktail he has managed to produce.
Other noteworthy highlights include the two Ben Shepherd tracks, Taree and Attrition, that further bring together all the nostalgias of 90s Seattle, and highlight his own excellent performance throughout the album; it comes into even further prominence as the album draws to a close, particularly in the shape of Eyelids Mouth and Worse Dreams. Rowing brings the album to a very fitting close, acting as a sister to opener Been Away Too Long, keeping all Soundgarden fanatics guessing as to the message it conveys. Don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing / I just keep on pulling, gotta row and Moving is breathing and breathing is life / Stopping is dying, you’ll be alright are lyrics open to interpretation, and are an indication of Cornell and Soundgarden’s future plans, and the uncertainty of what lies next for the grungefathers.
The fact that Soundgarden have managed to produce this in an environment that is no longer infected by a sound they were an integral root of is testament to their chemistry as a band, and their recognition that a band will get nowhere by plagiarising themselves. King Animal is homage to the sounds that have preceded it, and a statement that this album was not released with the sole purpose of finding Ben Shepherd some living quarters. It definitely isn’t as complete an album as Badmotorfinger or Superunknown, but this is a good record, which far exceeds all expectations. Intriguing to see what is next for the Seattle rockers… Let’s hope it starts with a UK tour in 2013! King Animal notches a very respectable 77%.