“I’ve been away too long,” belts out the raspy voice of Chris Cornell amid the opening track of King Animal, Soundgarden’s first studio release in over a decade and a half, and the album fans have been hoping for years would be made. While certainly not a masterwork for the band (give ‘em a break, they haven’t been around for while), it certainly does them justice and is at the very least presentable as a comeback record.
With the release of Soundgarden’s ill-advised “Live To Rise” on The Avengers soundtrack earlier this year, some fans were understandably concerned that this might point to an even more ill-advised album. However, those concerns should be laid to rest within the first few minutes. Think of “Live To Rise” as a warm-up for a rusty band that needed to find its feet again. By the time they got to these tracks, they pretty much got their act together.
That said, King Animal doesn’t break any new sonic ground for the band. In fact, it sounds like Soundgarden simply picked up where it left off, complete with their signature grunge cocktail of punk and hard rock, their complex time changes, their atmospheric sound, and their (mostly) cryptic lyricism. There are only two significant differences: 1) The record has a rather overpolished production value unbefitting to the rawness of grunge; and 2) Chris Cornell’s voice sounds fifteen years older and tired-er. Not much to be done about the latter, but the former basically reinforces an unfortunate message that Soundgarden is not a twenty-teens band, but rather a band of an earlier decade trying to reformat for the twenty-teens. It’s a subtle statement, but it is there.
From a musical standpoint, however, there is plenty on King Animal for these guys to be proud of. For those who like the straight-out rock side of Soundgarden, the opening track “Been Away Too Long” is sure to stand out. Other must-listens include the moody “Taree” and “Bones Of Birds,” and the sparse-yet-complex “By Crooked Steps.” Less so are the more forgettable tracks like “Halfway There” and “Eyelid’s Mouth.” But even with the record’s occasional missteps, “Live To Rise” is thankfully nowhere to be found on the track list.
All told, King Animal signifies a solid return for a band that once helped shape the sound of 90’s rock, but is probably too weak an effort to be considered the start of a new era. If Soundgarden plans this to be anything more than just a reunion, they’ll have to come up with something more groundbreaking the next time around.