Of all the bands to come out of the pacific northwest in the grunge era, Soundgarden never truly fit in. They still don’t, and their music is still different from what is popular today, but it’s not dated. They haven’t put together a studio record featuring new music since the 90s golden age of alternative rock, but they have been gearing up for a comeback over the past few years and that has finally come to fruition with King Animal.
The results are exactly what I expected, which actually leaves me feeling sort of lackluster about the whole thing. This album is exactly as it would have been if it were released fifteen years ago. Not that there isn’t a ton of room right now for rock music with a real backbone, and the album pleases on many levels, but considering how capable this band has proven themselves to be I don’t think I would be alone in expecting more than 90s alt rock. Good as it may be.
The opener and lead single, ‘Been Away Too Long’, is a screaming, grinding statement of intent, and it adds up to more than its too-overt title would probably seem to merit. It’s a great song– probably the best on the record– and with it one can surely say that Soundgarden’s comeback is at least successful as a return to form.
But it’s not universally pleasing, and in fact it might appeal to a rather small audience today. It has its up moments, which the band may have shied away from in the past, but by and large it is a fairly dreary affair and that’s not something that does very well these days. More than that, the album stubbornly refuses to experiment much at all with the established formula of the band’s earlier successes, leaving it to feel a little shapeless.
Chris Cornell is in perfect form, having lost nothing as he exhibits the unbelievable and undeniable voice of a rock god, and it is the upper, shrieking register being showcased for much of this record. As good as he is, I think it’s kind of a shame we don’t get to hear his fantastic lower, gravelly tone as much, especially because the transitions from there to the stratosphere are more impactful.
Almost every song starts off in a state of climax, which lends the album great energy, but it also leaves the songs with no place to go. Only a few tracks feature strong changes in movement, and even these feel like exploratory steps that are quickly retracted to bring the listener back into a maelstrom of guitar.
The songs are rich though, and the band is extremely inventive even in their refusal to color outside of the lines. The greatest alchemy they have is not in slightly off notes and weird time signatures, but in layering their riffs in expert fashion, where guitars provide more than a tune to hum along with as they grind out sonic warnings and dangerous aural landscapes.
“Eyelids Mouth” makes Soundgarden’s psychedelic and surreal nature slightly more approachable for the uninitiated, and the chorus is cool, even funky. It’s one of only a few very special tracks and standout moments on this record for me, and oddly what makes it special are the same things that make it a potential single, and that might be backwards for this particular band. “Black Saturday” is another that may stand out and succeed in today’s musical reality, and it’s the most similar to ‘Black Hole Sun’ so it should appeal to 90s skater kids just as much.
It’s a very strong record, and should be considered an achievement considering how long they have been out of practice and just how far Chris Cornell has drifted from this sound with his solo work. As much as I like hearing new music from Soundgarden, and as much as I appreciate them staying true to themselves and their sound, I don’t see great potential for this record to reach much further than their existing fanbase.
Release Date: November 13, 2012
Image Courtesy of Universal Republic