Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, King Animal, the first album from Soundgarden in 16 years, rocks, but not in the traditional way you’d expect a Soundgarden record to rock. Then again, Soundgarden has never really specialized in creating traditional hard rock. But even if the band had no past to live up to, King Animal still stands as a beast of a rock record.
King Animal doesn’t sound like a band trying to recapture old glory, rather it’s a collection of songs made by a band that’s taking stock of where it’s at now and is moving forward, which is one of the many things that makes it such a great record. So if you’re going into King Animal expecting Louder Than Love or Badmotorfinger you will be disappointed. But if you listen to this album with an open mind, curious to find out what Soundgarden will sound like in the 21st century, you’ll be pleased.
Any doubt Soundgarden would return with a fire in their bellies ready to rock and roll is removed early on. The record opens with lead single “Been Away Too Long” which is both commentary on the band itself and a solid indicator of the amount of heavy you’re going to get with King Animal. “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps” are also early highlights which frontload the album with heavier tunes affording the band the chance bring things down a notch with the more mellow “Taree” and “Bones of Birds.”
There are parts on King Animal where you want the band to let loose and unleash massive riffs and blow you away, but that never quite happens. The closest the band gets is on “Worse Dreams” and “Eyelids Mouth.” The former is one of the best songs on the album and it closes with a sonic collision of drums and guitars that slowly fades out. The latter closes with Kim Thayil‘s unmistakable guitar scrawling all over the place during a jam that you don’t want to end. Both these instances could either be seen as a band quitting while they are ahead, or a seasoned group of musicians knowing the right time to stop. Elsewhere, the psychedelic darkness of “Black Saturday” makes it one of the most interesting songs on the album. It ends with Chris Cornell singing about being born again which is a lyrical metaphor that could be extended to the band itself given the path it decided to take with King Animal by acting like Soundgarden circa 2012, not 1993.
On the vocal front, Cornell is in fine form. Anyone who has paid attention to his solo or Audioslave output knows he’s taken good care of his voice and he sounds stellar fronting his old band. Unfortunately, Cornell’s trademark howl doesn’t show up too often, but it makes enough appearances to let you know that this is a Soundgarden record and acts as a pleasant reminder that he is one of the finest frontmen of his generation. In place of spotlighting Cornell’s wails, the band puts the musicianship front and center, which is welcome. King Animal is a record filled with little nuances for your ears to discover and enjoy; be it subtle guitar notes accentuating the rhythm section on “Taree” or the surprise appearance of horns on “Black Saturday,” you’ll find plenty to come back to, making it a record well worth repeated listens.
King Animal is not a nostalgia album but shades of vintage Soundgarden are sprinkled throughout its 13 tracks. The intro of “Worse Dreams” invokes thoughts of “Jesus Christ Pose” and “By Crooked Steps” sounds like a Superunknown outtake. In the middle of the record, slow-burner “Bones of Birds” features a killer bassline, something that’s found quite a bit throughout King Animal, and you half expect Cornell to belt out “Slaves and Bulldozers'” refrain of “Now I know why you’ve been shaking” by the time the song is over. So there is definitely enough here for fans hoping the band sounds like the Soundgarden of yore, but as mentioned earlier, this is a record made by a band that’s moving forward.
Of course the most exciting things about King Animal is the fact that it actually exists. It took a couple of years, but Soundgarden did indeed release a record of new material, which is something fans have been clamoring for ever since the band got back together in 2010. And while there isn’t a song that surpasses the buzz surrounding a new Soundgarden record (which would be a very tough task to pull off, even for Soundgarden), as a whole the album is a solid, well-rounded effort that fits right in with the rest of the band’s catalog.