Sound — 7
The release of "King Animal" marks 16 years since Soundgarden's last album. The band were famous in the 90s for their grunge rock which was as influenced by 70s Zeppelin riffing and Hendrix psychedelia, as it was by the sub-pop sound under the gloomy Seattle skyline. In the space between then and now, the music scene and industry have radically changed, and so have the men in Soundgarden. Now middle-aged, they re-unite to re-establish their sound, while simultaneously updating it to ensure Soundgarden is still relevant in this new world. Three chords into the opener, and "King Animal" already starts to deliver. "Been Away Too Long" roars the album into life with the duel guitar attack of Cornell and Thayil. Cornell's rhythm drives the song forward with Thayil free to riff with him or embellish where he sees fit. The lead guitarist has a seemingly endless originality with his licks, and as the cascading riff of "Non-State Actor" spills out of the speakers, fans can rest assured he hasn't lost his chops. "King Animal" feels confident and realised as "Non-State"'s frantic solo gives way to the smart rocker "By Crooked Steps". There's a brilliant space to this song that allows the listener time to think without stagnating. It's a result of Soundgarden's classic riffing supplying impetus and direction, combined with a psychedelic swirl of noises that cast a dreamy spell on the brain. "A Thousand Days Before" features the same psychedelics and rock, but with a slower-tempo that creates a nice change of pace. Cameron's busy drumming is a highlight here as we're reminded of the brilliance of him and bassist Ben Sheppard. Their ability to anchor Soundgarden songs that seem on the verge of falling apart shows their musical chemistry which has endured 16 years later. But the "Badmotorfinger"-style mosher "Blood On The Valley Floor" sees them switch from anchoring Thayil and Cornell to riffing up front with them, and the entire band harmonise to perform the brilliant "Bones Of Birds". This ballad drifts along beautifully into a "She Likes Surprises" style chorus, and combines the best of their 90s work with a more subdued, mature style evident of Soundgarden in 2012. The second half of "King Animal" is a different story, however. "Taree" begins as a promising track with a verse that takes the listener on a wandering mid-tempo journey to the chorus. However, the destination is wholly forgettable with the chorus offering little melody or punch to the song. This is a missed opportunity to keep up the momentum - a similar story to the next track. As the guitars and drums kick in, "Attrition" promises to be a song to play on full blast driving through a hurricane. But lacklustre singing and too little development leave the song mediocre and repetitive. Worse yet, Cornell's solo sensibilities emerge on "Black Saturday" - a song that neither works with the band's style and or hooks the listener - and while "Halfway There" starts off sounding like a "Burden In My Hand" style hit, the chorus chews on too much pop-schmultz. "King Animal" stumbles until a strong close rescues it. "Worse Dreams" has some nice psychedelics, but "Eyelid's Mouth" and "Rowing" deliver some heavy punches in the final round, as both tracks groove towards ripping guitar solos.
Lyrics — 9
Cornell's lyrics on "King Animal" are the efforts of a seasoned song-writer. "Been Away Too Long" aptly sums up the reunion with a brooding opening verse: "You can't go home, no I swear you never can/You can walk a million miles and get nowhere." Cornell knows it's impossible to go back to how the band was in the 90s. Like a man returning to his hometown after 16 years, things are familiar but a lot has changed and he has to change with it. This is a central theme to the album; the songs sound like Soundgarden songs, but they're different. "Bones Of Birds" has a "Black Hole Sun" vibe, but no word play in the lyrics as a mature Cornell acknowledges being a father. With his children in mind, Cornell examines the world they will inherit, and the 16 years since Soundgarden broke-up has brought both war and hope. The former is interrogated as Cornell explores international relations on "Non-State Actor", and laments continuous conflict on "Blood On The Valley Floor" - a song with imagery evocative of war-torn Afghanistan. But the swan-song "Rowing" offers hope as Cornell implores perseverance: "Rowing is living and living is hard/But living beats losing all that we are." As "King Animal" deals with the effects of time, so has Cornell with his voice. No, he can't reach glass-shattering highs of "Jesus Christ Pose" anymore, but he'll still rip through the mix of a song with vocals that kick up gravel. A great example is "Eyelid's Mouth", where we hear the band give Cornell the perfect platform to launch his assault. The power and passion of Cornell here is nothing new, but the style he uses to convey it is fresh and adds to the maturity of Soundgarden's new vibe. This is seriously awesome stuff, and as Cornell sings, screams and whispers his way through the album there are few instances where vocals are lacking. "Attrition" is one in particular, where Sheppard's vocals are poor and Cornell is low on energy, but even on the pop-style tracks like "Halfway There", Cornell's raw vocals hit home. When these are combined with quality songs on the album, like "Blood On The Valley Floor" and "Bones Of Birds", the effect is tremendous.
Overall Impression — 8
"King Animal" shows that Soundgarden have plenty to say and the will to say it. The result is a high-octane, yet densely-realised album that will rock the casual listener and give hours of replay value to the fan. It captures the essence of what made Soundgarden great, but with some fresh sounds that result in an album looking forwards into the horizon. Even the album's weak points can be commended as its apparent the band were trying out new things, and this attitude is what will make Soundgarden fans genuinely excited for the future.