Soundgarden – King Animal

Call it a comeback: Soundgarden return, rust and cobweb-free with King Animal, writes EDWARD SHARP-PAUL.

Comeback albums are a dicey business especially after a 16-year hiatus; especially when your band is indelibly linked to one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of popular music; and especially when your erstwhile frontman has lurched between mediocrity and outright disaster for much of the last decade.

On King Animal – Soundgarden’s first album since 1996’s Down On The Upside – the band deal with the many potential hazards in the best way possible: By completely ignoring them. The punishing opening run of ‘Been Away Too Long’, ‘Non-State Actor’ and ‘By Crooked Steps’ are the work of four men with little interest either in their past or in the current musical landscape, but they are also the work of a band that know their own strength. Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd negotiate some truly freaky time signatures with ferocious precision, while Kim Thayil throws psych guitar textures around like confetti. Chris Cornell, meanwhile, is just Chris Cornell: Every inch the rock god, with the most distinctive wail since Axl Rose.

Though its first half is strong, King Animal gets better as it wears on. It’s as if the band loses interest in proving that they can still “rock”, and get on with the far more rewarding business of knotty, sludgy psychedelia, of twisting all that classic-rock machismo into ever-stranger shapes. The rock’s not bad at all – in fact, the pointedly-titled ‘Been Away Too Long’ sits comfortably alongside ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Pretty Noose’ in the pantheon of great Soundgarden openers – it just fails to scratch the surface of what they’re capable of. And that’s a one-off fusion of stoner rock, metal and psych, which they infuse with byzantine melodic flourishes and proggy time signatures. And they make it all sound somehow buoyant and affirming and beautiful.

“Chris Cornell’s voice is still, at 47, an air-raid siren.”

The majestic ‘Bones of Birds’ does all of the above, and it heralds the start of King Animal’s more exploratory second half. Tempos unfurl, the sound grows more expansive, and new textures start to dot the landscape: Horn stabs on ‘Black Saturday’, acoustic guitar on the Beatles-esque ‘Halfway There’ (possibly, along with ‘Burden In My Hand’, their poppiest-ever effort), and winding, melodic basslines all over.

Since you’re wondering, Chris Cornell’s voice is still, at 47, an air-raid siren. If anything, its slightly worn-in quality conveys greater depth, and greater presence. Cornell seems to have been fighting the same demons (and dropping the same metaphors) for most of his career, though. His lyrics on King Animal offer the same old combination of Into The Wild platitudes and vaguely mystical guru-isms, but at this stage in the game, you wouldn’t want Cornell to change a thing – it’s as much a part of the Soundgarden aesthetic as Kim Thayil’s curiously placid shred face.

‘Eyelid’s Mouth’ comes on like Dirt -era Alice In Chains, with Cornell’s multi-tracked voice drawling about dry rivers, and Kim Thayil tossing off a vintage, wigged-out wah solo. It’s the closest thing to a Seattle grunge-era time capsule on King Animal, and while it’s great, the absence of other throwbacks suggests that Soundgarden’s reformation is being done for the right reasons.

Album closer ‘Rowing’ summarises all that’s right about Soundgarden circa 2012. Featuring an improbable marriage of mechanical drum loops and chain-gang chanting, ‘Rowing’ ought to be a legacy-trashing comedy of errors (just to add to the degree of difficulty, they segue into a grinding, tar-black stoner groove for minute, and then back). The fact that it isn’t a disaster is a relief: More significant, though, is the fact that almost thirty years in, Soundgarden are willing to make such bold decisions, rather than resting on their laurels.