Album Reviews

Soundgarden – King Animal

on November 12, 2012, 8:00am
Soundgarden King Animal C
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“Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” tweeted Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell on New Year’s Day 2010 — a six-word table scrap that nearly three years later has grown into a full-fledged banquet for a once-starving fan base. Since Cornell’s #newyearsresolution, ravenous Soundgarden fans have feasted on a North American tour, two new compilations, and the occasional fresh slab of music. And now, after 16 years of salivating, Soundgarden’s “knights” finally have the chance to satisfy their hunger with a new full-length album, King Animal.

But what can listeners expect from a band whose last record came out pre-South Park and back when Radiohead was still just that “Creep” band from the UK? An anxious lead single titled “Been Away Too Long” may seem telling, but “been away” doesn’t mean musically dormant. Cornell’s varied solo work and time fronting Audioslave have made him a surrogate Robert Plant to a second generation of hard rock lovers; celebrated guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd have periodically surfaced on projects; and drummer Matt Cameron has spent a workmanlike decade and change pounding the skins for Seattle brethren Pearl Jam. Predictably, then, King Animal sounds like a record firmly rooted in 2012 rather than an attempt to revisit the ’90s and deliver Superduperunknown or Downer on the Upside. It’s a version of Soundgarden that remains heavy but sacrifices some of the band’s primal bluster for production polish — a swap that ultimately relegates King Animal to prince status.

All the components that made Soundgarden unique are present on King Animal. Early track “Non-State Actor” mixes in that familiar foreign rhythmic flavor, punctuated by Cornell’s grating vocal deconstructions on the choruses. Lumbering “Blood on the Valley Floor” recalls standard heavier fare with its mid-tempo grind and bold guitar incisions. And “Been Away Too Long” matches melody to mayhem, with Cornell’s voice oscillating between extremes of tattered roars and banshee wails, miraculously locating a smooth croon in the middle territory.

More rewarding, though, are songs that feel like significant evolutions or departures from where the band used to tread. Soundgarden’s famous odd time signatures evolve further on standout “By Crooked Steps”. Cornell soars above jackhammering guitar parts and straight-ahead drumming, a mismatch that somehow sounds natural while claiming new ground for the band. “A Thousand Days Before” belies its heaviness with an uplifting vocal tone and a warm guitar line that playfully chases its tail — a surprising entry point into an expansive rocker that takes several listens to fully appreciate.

Much of King Animal will satiate even the most skeptical listeners, but the record also slumbers through several cuts that neglect the fact that Soundgarden, even all these years later, is still an animal best kept in a rusty cage. The production on the rallying “Taree” (among others) removes nearly all the song’s rough edges and sandblasts away its grimy surfaces. The barn-burning “Attrition” is a smooth injection when, in reality, Soundgarden’s allure has always been a habit of letting that needle snag and irritate a bit. Unfortunately, King Animal too often leaves the listener imagining what a song would have sounded like without the sanitizing.

Production issues aside, this record proves that Soundgarden still have their muscle but also hints that they are in the process of figuring out how to flex it again. For every realized track like “Worse Dreams”, with its circular vocal phrasings and slippery riffing, there’s a jam like “Eyelid’s Mouth” that completely loses its identity — in this case, via an almost painful chorus that asks, “Who let the river run dry?” Still, there’s more than enough merit found in King Animal to ensure that any future tweets by Chris Cornell about new Soundgarden music will confidently be filed under #reallygoodnews.

Essential Tracks: “By Crooked Steps”, “A Thousand Days Before”

4 comments

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Ghost Writer
November 13, 2012 at 7:35 pm

Unfortunately, King Animal shows more flaws than strenghts, it might be a great Audioslave record, but its a bad Soundgarden record.

James Copp
November 13, 2012 at 1:07 am

Hey now, the chorus on Eyelid’s Mouth is awesome, in a groove-based sort of way. Repetition is good when executed right. And that bass line in the beginning… oh damn. And hey, how come no review I have read so far gives props to Rowing? My prediction: It will end up as a Soundgarden staple.

That said, yeah, the album is a bit too polished. But we can’t go around hoping for another Badmotorfinger.

Cray Morrison
November 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

One thing I hope that viewers of reviews such as this is that they still have an open mind. When studies or tests on products commence there is usually first, a declaration of the test parameters. This isn’t the case with music reviews. We don’t know how many times they listened, what their background is (fan, foe or casual fan) of the band, etc. Remember, Rolling Stone Magazine, in Led Zeppelin’s prime, hated Led Zeppelin. This release by the band deserves 4 stars or a perfect score in my opinion, so I rebut the opinion above. Been Away for Too Long is a perfect door to the album, as it’s straightforward riff leads us through a exhibition of some of the elements of what any of Soundgarden’s fans loved about Down on the Upside. I am always fascinated with what this band does in the space of 4 minutes or less. The surprises don’t stop at that with Non-state actor which contains some of their finest riffs. By Crooked Steps is an absolute powerhouse and the end is just ominous and at the end of this is a glorious road to return, with the upbeat a Thousand Days Before; this track is timeless, it beckons to earlier days but doesn’t sound vintage, and in spite of the time separating this track from 16-20 years ago, it sounds completely original. Track by track, it took more than one listen to get it, but neither did it take 3 or 4 listens. Taree and Rowing and Worse Dreams are examples of this, “oh sh*t, I get it” like some switch going off in your brain. And perhaps this is why it is hard for people to approach new material. In this age of instant gratification, people want what they knew or expect, and I had to let go of the conceptual hold I had on them as a band to appreciate the new material. I am not kidding when I say this, but after the 3rd listen, I was no longer trying to figure it out and was in love with the band all over again. I even consider this one of my favorite soundgarden albums. All these songs have been swimming in my head since the last i listened to it. This is the sign of good things to me. I was never a casual listener of Soundgarden. In fact to me “Blow up the Outside World” is smoked by “Tighter and Tighter” and “Spoonman” is outdone by “Superunknown, Mailman, Fresh Tendrils, Limo Wreck”. There are no B Sides or A sides to me. But this is fresh material, and I was listening to this every day for a week when it was on Itunes for free and I got lost in the music. * * * * * stars…don’t change a thing guys, bravo!!!

Cray Morrison
November 12, 2012 at 1:17 pm

oh and by the way, I pre-ordered the CD the day it was available…I cant’ wait for my copy!!! I will probably also buy the Best Buy version as it has even more deluxe tracks…yes, they’ve been away too long.

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