For the sake of full-disclosure, I should come right out with it: I absolutely love Grunge, and even when pitted against my Metal, Punk, and Hardcore stand-bys, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is my favorite album of all time…period. And while I certainly missed “Seattle sound” party by about ten years when I got into it all (Kurt Cobain died a week before my 7th birthday), much of the music still holds a place in my heart as “my music.” Ok, so with that out of the way, you should have a good idea of how a fan like me would approach the first Soundgarden album in 15 years. Going into the first listen, I was very worried. Live to Rise, the single they contributed to The Avengers soundtrack, was not very promising. That and there is a certain amount of skepticism that must come with comebacks these days. The success of these returns range from the glorious triumph of Alice in Chains to the self-indulgent ho-hum of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Upon first listen, the word to best describe King Animal would have to be: curious. Off-putting would be a fitting choice too, as I was not too sure how to describe what I heard. After a couple more listens, I would describe it like this: King Animal reflects the awkwardness of starting over after so many years away, and carries with it the flavors of Chris Cornell’s time with Audioslave as well as Matt Cameron’s time with Pearl Jam. In fact, I would argue that much of this new Soundgarden sounds like Backspacer-era Pearl Jam in its slightly-restrained, rickety hard-rock drive. To the Audioslave point, I would have to agree with Allison Stewart of The Washington Post in her assessment that “the disc’s few clunkers sound like Audioslave outtakes.” In another sense, the records reminds me at once of Down on the Upside and Ultramega OK (somehow), with a sense of meandering between the two.
Among the strong moments, there are the 2 songs at the beginning: Been Away Too Long, Non-State Actor. Both of these songs have a catchiness that ironically takes a few listens to sink in, but if you give them a chance, they have real staying power. If there is anything a Soundgarden fan demands, its low-end, heavy riffs. Unfortunately, there are only a few of these present on King Animal, mostly on Blood on the Valley Floor. It’s as if, in their older age, they feel some self-imposed obligation to restrain the vicious anger and heaviness that made their early work so powerful. Another element at play here might be the band’s desire not to be labeled a Metal band, something I’ve seen them assert in multiple interviews. However, some of the softer moments here stand out excellently, including the eerie and reflective Bones of Birds.
There are several moments that make King Animal a rather anti-climactic experience, moments where that classic Soundgarden fire begins to burn just beneath the surface, before it's subdued beneath the album’s shiny production. Though this did make King Animal a disappointment at times, in another way, it makes me want to hear more and I remain hopeful for the next record. And with Chris Cornell’s voice in better-than-expected condition and the rest of the band ready to shine as well- we have every reason to give Soundgarden the benefit of the doubt.
7 out of 10
Favorite Songs: Been Away Too Long, Non-State Actor, Blood on the Valley Floor, Bones of Birds, Worse Dreams