Western Herald – Album Review: Soundgarden roars back from 16-year hiatus with "King Animal"

Album Review: Soundgarden roars back from 16-year hiatus with "King Animal"

John Campbell
A&E Reporter

Soundgarden – King Animal
Seven Four Entertainment/Republic Records, 2012

In 1996, Soundgarden released “Down on the Upside.” After a short tour, and amid some animosity, the band broke up in 1997. However, 2010 brought about a reunion and a headlining spot at Lollapalooza. Soundgarden released a new compilation album “Telephantasm: A Retrospective” that same year, and followed it up in 2011 with their first live album “Live on I-5” which was recorded during the 1996 tour. Early in 2012, Soundgarden wrote “Live to Rise” for The Avengers Soundtrack, marking their first brand new material since “Down on the Upside.”  Now, 16 years after their last full-length studio album, Soundgarden are back in full force with “King Animal.”

Soundgarden fans expecting “King Animal” to sound exactly like any of the band’s previous material, specifically 1991’s “Badmotorfinger” (“Outshined,” “Rusty Cage”) or 1994’s “Superunknown” (“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman”), will be disappointed. The album does, however, show glimpses of the past while looking at the future of the band. “King Animal” picks up where “Down on the Upside” left off, further showing off the talents of each band member.

Any doubts that Chris Cornell (guitar, vocals, piano, mandolin) was unable to keep his unique vocal range were dismissed during his solo “Songbook” tour, which stopped at Kalamazoo’s State Theatre in Kalamazoo last December, and exploded in a dynamic performance. On “King Animal,” Cornell shows off his range, but does keep his signature howling to a minimum. Perhaps this is for the best, as it may allow for further use in the future.

After the Soundgarden break-up, Matt Cameron (drums, percussion, Moog, backing vocals) became the full-time drummer for Soundgarden’s Seattle counterparts, Pearl Jam. While Cameron has kept that gig, the reunion and “King Animal” show him at his best. Cameron has always been able to trick casual listeners into thinking that songs were in classic 4/4 time while trotting them along at odd time signatures like 7/8. This tradition continues on “King Animal.” Ben Shepherd (bass guitar, additional guitar, baritone guitar, backing vocals) shows of his bass-playing skills throughout the album. Shepherd’s bass playing is full of energy, which should be expected in a Soundgarden album. And a Soundgarden album would not be a Soundgarden album without Kim Thayil (lead guitar, mandolin, horn arrangements). Thayil brings his signature guitar tone and hectic playing style back for “King Animal.”

The lead single from “King Animal,” “Been Away Too Long,” could be looked at as a statement by the band (“But it’s fate/I only ever really wanted a break/I’ve been away for too long/Though I never really wanted to stay”). After 16 years, it could be argued that Soundgarden truly have been away for too long. The song is a great lead single to capture new listeners, as it seems like it’s the closest to what is heard on modern rock radio stations.

“By Crooked Steps” shows off the band’s use of odd time signatures and is a highlight of the album. It’s the only song on the album in which all four members have writing credits, although Cornell is only credited with lyrics. The breakdown of the song is the perfect example of the chemistry of Soundgarden.

“Bones of Birds” has a slower beat and a bit of a sad message, but it has a beautiful chorus structure, both melodically and lyrically (“Hey/Sometimes she won’t cry/When the smallest one is drowned/Too weak to survive/Probably/Maybe”).  The piano work during the second verse is simple but absolutely stunning.  “Bones of Birds” is a very haunting song that will leave its mark on a lot of people.
“Taree” is another song with an odd time signature, as well as one of the few songs that features Cornell’s signature wailing vocal delivery that was prevalent in earlier Soundgarden albums (though it is, to a degree, downplayed here).  In the context of the song, the downplaying works extremely well. A short guitar solo by Thayil features the use of a wah-wah pedal and Thayil’s quick fingers.

A major highlight of “King Animal” is “Attrition,” which is the only song on the album with lyrics not written by Cornell. The song was written entirely by Shepherd and is one of the more energetic tracks on the album, with a medium-fast paced rhythm. It’s the shortest song on the album, clocking in at only 2:53, but that’s all there needs to be.

An acoustic guitar intro can be heard on “Black Saturday.” The acoustic guitar is prevalent through the song, but is joined by Cornell’s vocals, Shepherd’s bass, Thayil’s electric guitar and Cameron’s drumming.  Soon after, a horn arrangement can be heard during the chorus.

“Eyelid’s Mouth” is a particularly noteworthy song, as it has additional guitar work done by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam. McCready has previously worked with Cameron in Pearl Jam and both Cameron and Cornell in Temple of the Dog. “Eyelid’s Mouth” has the most prevalent case of Cornell’s classic wailing vocal delivery, leading into the fantastic guitar solo and excellent guitar and bass riffs that intertwine through the fadeout.

“King Animal” closes perfectly with “Rowing,” which begins and ends with an excellent bass line by Shepherd. The chorus lyrics could be seen as a reflection of the future of Soundgarden after their current tour ends (“Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing/I just keep on pulling/Gotta row”). The groove shortly after the halfway point of the song is another great example of the chemistry within the band. Clocking in at 5:09, “Rowing” is the longest song on the album.

All in all, “King Animal” should easily please the die-hard Soundgarden fans as well as the casual fans of the band. Even though the album doesn’t have the exact same sound of their previous albums, it is unmistakably a Soundgarden album.  f this is the work that Soundgarden can put out after a 16 year break between studio albums, one can only hope they write more songs and get back into the studio again soon.

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