By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
“I’ve been away for too long!” howls Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell on the first track and lead single off the band’s comeback album, King Animal. And rightfully so, for it has been 16 long years since their last album, 1996’s Down On the Upside. They disbanded in ’97, pursuing separate music projects over the next decade, most notably Cornell’s band with Rage Against the Machine members, Audioslave, and drummer Matt Cameron’s permanent gig with fellow Seattlers, Pearl Jam. But the planets have re-aligned and Soundgarden has officially marked its return.
Believe it or not, Soundgarden have been around for what’s closing in on 30 years. They formed in Seattle in 1984, and along with bands like Green River and the Melvins, they’re credited with inventing what came to be known as “grunge” music. With their punk rock ethos, Sabbath-inspired down-tuned guitar riffs, strange time signatures and dark lyrics, Soundgarden blazed the path of what would become known as grunge, inspiring a whole crop of artists from the Pacific Northwest, including Alice in Chains and Nirvana, to tune low and get pissed.
It would be the ultimate injustice to label them as just you’re typical angry heavy rock band. First of all, they have a sound that truly defies categorization. They’re heavy yet psychedelic, angry yet intelligent. Grunge is only a mere general term that serves its artists no justice, especially in the case of Soundgarden.
King Animal picks up were Soundgarden left off, sounding like it easily could have been released right after Down On the Upside had they not split up. They were never a band to purposely revisit themselves, but instead press forward with each release. Sure, the signature sound is still intact, and it’s clear on tracks like “By Crooked Steps,” “A Thousand Days Before” and “Bones of Birds.” But to some fans’ dismay, there isn’t much that harks their heyday of Badmotorfinger or Superunknown.
Aside from the music, the other key factor to Soundgarden is the gut-wrenching vocal ability of Cornell. The guy can rip the paint off the walls of any size room. And he hasn’t lost any of it. Despite the grittier approach he used with Audioslave and the slightly calmer vocals on his solo records, they’ve had little-to-no influence on his approach to this new album. The only exception would be the single “Been Away Too Long,” which is probably the weakest track King Animal has to offer. Overall, the vocals deliver, providing a pure adrenaline rush atop guitarist Kim Thyall’s doomy, dirty riffs and drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepard’s driving rhythm section.
King Animal is not the best album in Soundgarden’s catalogue, that honor arguably goes to Badmotorfinger or Superunknown from the band’s peak creative and commercial success. But it’s far from being bad, or even average. It’s a natural progression with plenty of killer and memorable tracks. Highlights of the album include “Bones of Birds,” “Taree,” “Worse Dreams” and the closing track “Rowing.” The album should appeal to most older fans, but with enough modern acts to rip them off and piggy-back their pioneering sound, younger fans should embrace it as well.