Soundgarden: King Animal
Soundgarden's first release in 16 long years, King Animal is the answer to all the burning questions that Soundgarden fans have been tossing about ever since their reunion was announced back at the beginning of 2010. Would they be able to mesh after so many years apart? Would the creative spark still be there (a question asked with far more urgency after the atrocious commercialized mess that was Live to Rise, a song mercifully not featured on this album in any capacity)? Would they be able to balance branching out into a new more fitting style with staying true to their roots? Can they retain their previous standards of musicianship? Thankfully, the answer to those questions, and that most important question of any piece of any entertainment (is it any good?) is a resounding yes. While it may not be their best work, King Animal is a cohesive and strong album that gives each member a chance to shine and proves without a doubt that Soundgarden is back for good.
Chris Cornell's contribution was probably one of my biggest areas of concern going into this album. Nothing ruins a comeback album faster than an iconic singer who can no longer sing, and with Cornell's recent leanings into increasingly unpalatable territory (whether it was his foray into R&B, Scream, or the modern rock stylings of Audioslave,) not to mention his steadily advancing age, there was a shot that this album could have turned into little more than yet another vehicle for his often mediocre solo career. Luckily, both these fears are quickly proven to be totally unfounded. Cornell's voice has aged quite gracefully, not at the near-mythic levels of someone like Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, but he certainly hasn't lost a beat over the last few years. While nothing on this album comes anywhere close to his most iconic performances on songs like Beyond the Wheel, Say Hello To Heaven, or Like Suicide, he brings an excellent performance that successfully melds his older droning-wailing style with a more crooning delivery that he has been cultivating for some time. Throughout most of his range, you can hardly even tell that he is pushing hard on age fifty. He delivers ageless performance after ageless performance on this album, and even though there are fewer standout vocal performances than one would like, it is a wonderfully strong return for an artist who has been stuck in a funk for the last few years.
Though the song writing is a group effort, like on most Soundgarden albums, it is Cornell's that tend to be the best lyrically. That tradition continues unabated here. Whether it is the deeply introspective songs like Bones of Birds or Halfway There (though as a song this one is suspect, being the closest this comes to sounding like a solo effort), or the darkly sinister like By Crooked Steps and Taree, there is plenty to like about Chris's lyrics on this album. He channels every bit of his skill to craft an album that features lyrics that match or even supersede those of previous Soundgarden albums, all while expanding their sound to move ever so slightly away from their previous style in a sensible and fitting way.
Another question mark was how lead guitarist Kim Thayil and bass guitarist Ben Shepherd would fare after being mostly inactive for the entire period of the band's breakup. Thayil has been the least notable, doing a handful of collaborations with various bands across the musical spectrum, while Shepherd released his second album with his side project Hater, and also completed his currently untitled solo album. Thayil unleashes his usual array of sludgy riff masterpieces and compliments it with a handful of blistering solos. I'm not as much of a fan of Thayil's soloing as I am of his riffs. He tends to go the same place a little too often, and with the exception of the exceedingly dramatic (Like Suicide, Black Hole Sun) and the unusual (Beyond The Wheel) I don't find many of his solos to be too interesting. This album is much the same, if you have appreciated his work in the past you will like the soloing here, and it is by no means bad or inappropriate, it just gets a bit too same-y after awhile. Versatility is one of Soundgarden's strongest elements though, and the guitar work is no different. The metal riffs that make up most of the album give way to an eastern tinged lead guitar on A Thousand Days Before, blues works its way into both Bones of Birds and Rowing, and there is even a bit of acoustic guitar on Black Saturday. Like most of the rest of this album, Thayil's contributions are similar but different in the very best way. He manages an exquisite array of guitar tones and riffage that almost makes one forget that he has been in near obscurity for the last decade.
Ben Shepherd makes contributions equal to or beyond his output on previous albums, a huge surprise after he has been relatively dormant for the last decade and increasingly unhealthy looking. He even said in a 2010 interview that he was broke and basically homeless. Despite his recent struggles, King Animal is a remarkable show of force for the eccentric bassist. He contributes a song very much in his wheelhouse with music and lyrics on Attrition, a punk-inspired song that marks the fifth time he has written both lyrics and music in his Soundgarden career. The song is quite a bit like Kickstand, Face Pollution, and Ty Cobb in that it is very fast paced transition song that takes the album to a very different place and adds even more variety to an already wonderfully diverse collection of songs. He has also become a valuable contributor to the musical composition of the group, being credited/co-credited with the music of 6 of the album's 13 tracks (tied for the most with Chris Cornell, who has long been the face of the band.) His influence is definitely felt, even when the bass is pushed to the background, but he does get quite a few showcase performances of his own. Rowing starts and ends with an ominous and technically proficient bass riff that dominates much of the song. He also delivers exceptional performances on Eyelid's Mouth, A Thousand Days Before, and Worse Dreams. While the production quality on a handful of songs somewhat washes out the bass, and he doesn't manage to add anything of note to songs like Black Saturday or Halfway There, this is still a fantastic effort that showcases his growth as a songwriter quite nicely.
One of the most intriguing elements of this album was seeing how they would build upon the increasingly atmospheric and spacey soundscapes of their previous work. Perhaps thankfully, they decide to ditch the motif that colored their previous two albums and instead go in an entirely new direction. This album is rife with primal, nature driven imagery. Whether it is the album title, cover art, or the names of most of the tracks (Bones of Birds, Blood on the Valley Floor, By Crooked Steps,) this album represents a tonal shift from the most focused and complimentary of Soundgarden's previous albums. As a result, some of that mysterious atmospheric build up that made Superunknown and Down on the Upside so brilliant is lost, which means this isn't an album that is built on particularly slow, meandering songs, droning vocals, or echoing guitars. That isn't to say that it is a particularly brutal or aggressive album either: while it certainly has those moments, there are plenty of slower ballads and even a few tracks that hark back to Cornell's days with Audioslave. This sense of variety is one of the album's strongest assets however, and while the lack of something truly atmospheric and moody (with the possible exception of album closer Rowing) is noted, what we have instead makes the trade off almost worth it. There are blues songs, pop songs, straight up rockers, punk, Alice in Chains-esque grunge tunes, and the aforementioned eastern-flavored A Thousand Days Before. It should come as little surprise that the songs where Soundgarden strays the most from the usual paradigms are the most successful, while the first two songs are a bit on the bland side. Halfway There is also a highly questionable song that will probably be skewered by fans for being a song that ditches everything that ever made the group successful. Overall though, this is as diverse a group of songs as they have created, and they get tons of credit for continuing to experiment and push their boundaries as artists, even if they have moved on a bit from what made Superunknown so great.
One thing that was never in doubt about this album was that Matt Cameron would absolutely bring it. The most active member of the group since their breakup, Cameron has been Pearl Jam's drummer for four studio releases and fourteen years worth of tours. His time in Pearl Jam has moved him away from the kind of drumming he did in Soundgarden: he rarely has to do much of anything outside of the occasional fill or subtly complex beat in a band that is as reliant on the charisma of its frontman as Pearl Jam is. All this time spent practicing a totally different method of delivering rock music makes it hardly a surprise when he rarely brings out the full on tom-driven bombardment that made tracks like Spoonman, Jesus Christ Pose, Pretty Noose, or Head Down so great, but when he does it is certainly an occasion. Opener Been Away Too Long benefits from a neat little pattern that plays during the verses, and the otherwise bland Worse Dreams features a fantastic drum driven section to close out the song. Of course, one of Cameron's most notable characteristics is his ability to spice up slower songs while simultaneously keeping the focus where it needs to be. He brings an excellent sense of emphasis and impeccably perfect timing to songs like Rowing and Eyelid's Mouth, while also beefing up the more straightforward rockers on this album with fills that will be comfortable familiar to those who have previously enjoyed the band's work. There may not be quite as much variety as one has come to expect from Cameron, especially on previous Soundgarden releases, but he is an absolutely rock solid piece of this band who only manages to improve with age.
The thing that sets this comeback album apart from so many others, and a substantial contributor to its success on its own merits, is that the band is very much a cohesive group, even after all the time spent apart. I suspect that a large part of this is that there was no new member acclimation process. Unlike Alice in Chains, Journey, Queen, and so many other reunion projects, Soundgarden has the benefit of returning every member that was active at the time of disbanding. This is a huge benefit to both the listener and, apparently, to the band. Everyone has a hand in song writing/lyrics, which gives the album its varied feel that I discussed earlier, and there isn't any showboating that puts one instrument above any of the others. Everyone has a very defined part to play on every song, and they work together masterfully. Cameron and Shepherd are a force in the rhythm section, complimenting each other perfectly, while Thayil manages to find a perfect guitar tone to accentuate Cornell's often gloomy song writing.
Fans of Soundgarden and music lovers previously unacquainted with this fantastic band should find plenty to like here. Outside of a few songs that probably won't be to the liking of most of the group's hardcore faithful (the first two tracks and Halfway There definitely have an Audioslave influence to them, and are easily the least inspired songs musically) this album is much better than anyone would have guessed. All four members are on point and bring their usual excellence, and there are at least three songs that can go toe to toe against even the most exceptional of the band's earlier work.
A Thousand Days Before
Bones of Birds