Review: Soundgarden – ‘King Animal’

They’ve been gone too long. They’re back just for the money. They can’t alchemize the magic of the glory days. Their singer made a really shitty record with Timbaland. The reasons the new Soundgarden record should fall short are in ridiculous plentitude. Every sign points to a cash-milking rehash set to spoil the sacred memories of everyone who remembers the magic of Seattle before the turn of the century.

Rest easy, Rock purists. King Animal defies the odds.

With an outrageous 16 year gap between Soundgarden‘s last studio release and their return, the band is no longer in a landscape of sound they were central to creating. Rather than cower in nostalgia or pander to the bandwagons, however, Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron have returned with a progressively demanding, wide-reaching power play of reestablishment. The framework is unfiltered and undeniably Soundgarden – moody, thick with riffs and vortexes of rhythm – but with the kind of evolution mandated by the progressive state of Rock today.

Listen to King Animal in full

Radio-bait single “Been Away Too Long” has an AC/DC mischievous-muscle air, through a rather innocuous sonic design. The first-single choice for the opener track is an odd pick, as it’s barely at all indicative of the avenues the band travel through the rest of King Animal. Regardless, the goosebumps rise on Cameron’s cymbal count leading into “Non-State Actor,” and with Cornell’s trademark howl riding Thayil’s spiraling guitar and Matt’s tom-punch (Pearl Jam has kept him sharp as ever), the trap-door rhythm shifts are an indulgent body-rocking delight.

Cornell’s voice leaves nothing to desire, a stellar wail with consistency that defies his age and eliminates any concerns of sonic continuity in the band’s catalogue (something the other members never left open for question – there was only one Scream, after all). What makes Soundgarden’s return legitimate is more than the seasoned musicianship, whirling time signatures and signature wail, however. There is an atmospheric history to the band that constructed a mountain range of powerful roaring rock domination across two decades, pulling metal, grunge and psychedelia into a dark vortex: “Drawing Flies”. “Loud Love”. “Room a Thousand Years Wide”. “Fourth of July”. It returns on King Animal, and within the space of songs that don’t swing for the rusty-bullshit of FM radio fences we find an entire new world to get lost in.

Producer Adam Kasper’s contributions are invaluable, establishing a depth and rounded warmth to the Seattle heroes’ return and packing the album to the rafters with nuance and repeat-listen gems of subtlety. The man worked the knobs for QOTSA’s Songs For The Deaf, Pearl Jam’s self-titled & Riot Act, Foo Fighters’ One By One, among others, returns to the fold with Soundgarden and adds another remarkable gem to his sonic crown.

A tab hits the tongue for the jittering psychedelic slam of “By Crooked Steps,” the intro to the song perfectly capturing the onset of a powerful hallucinogenic hijacking: a distant ringing Thayil riff builds around a rising drum march, ushering in the first nervous sensations of perception deviation to confirm that the chemicals are working – that feeling creeping up your spine that something unpredictable and powerful is imminently arriving. Just as you begin to find familiarity and comfort in the new groove, it doubles back on itself in a shuddering, amplified burst. The chemicals have shifted, and an uneasy excitement has only a moment to register as Shepherd’s low end wraps a new, tighter riff-wrap around the pulsing rhythm, before the entire thing explodes into its full, thrash-jittering groove.

It’s immediately overwhelming, and Cornell makes no effort to console as he welcomes you inside.  “I’m addicted to feeling / Stealing love isn’t stealing /  Can’t you see that I understand your mind?” You bought the fucking ticket, the ride is now yours to take. “Not looking for a brighter side / Crooked steps will take me higher / I don’t care if you want to cry”.

At times a middle-flowing brightness comes in without much teeth, as in “Halfway There” or “Black Saturday,” the latter redeemed through a disparate psychedelic breakdown semi-solo. They come across as the Cornell solo tracks that they are, and though harmless aren’t likely to survive many album replays.

Ben Shepherd’s prominence on King Animal is a pure delight, whether through the complete overhaul of his own track on Taree or his ownership of Attrition. His anchor lead inspiring the melody on “Worse Dreams “gets the head nodding immediately, Thayil’s guitar countering with a variation. The dissonant-collision collapse of the song at the end forgives its overtly poppy chorus, and we meet Shepherd again leading the onset of the rooster-strutting, layered apocalypse of “Eyelids Mouth”.

The Waits-inspired grind of “Rowing” is a perfect conclusion, leaning into the wind with a popped-collar trenchcoat. Justin Chancellor of Tool seems to have influenced the bass riff, a rapid-rolling exploration of submerged peaks and valleys as Cornell burns through the mantra: “Don’t know where I’m going / I just keep on rowing / I just keep on pulling, gotta row”. It’s a swirling industrial quicksand that opens up in a screaming Thayil solo that hits as darkly and deeply as any in the band’s history.

However shaky the peace, whatever the motivations, the reunion we first saw signs of backstage at a Pearl Jam show two years ago has come to full fruition, and the results are worth celebrating.


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