|I'm not of the age where the initial "grunge" wave stunk up the music press or took over the mainstream. My ears were still tuning in classic rock, but I started catching more and more "alternative" radio by the mid 90s and became a fan of Soundgarden's BIG hits "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days." Then the band released Down on the Upside (1996) and I bought it the first week it was available. I'd been reading guitar magazine pieces about Soundgarden and reviews of the new album were intriguing enough for me to throw down fifteen bones. Even listening to the radio show Rockline featuring all four members of the group (Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron) late one night was a thrill for me as a teen. I have an admitted soft spot for that record, up until this new "reunion" album King Animal, and that messy finale to the Soundgarden story. Down on the Upside has a handful of amazing songs like, "Pretty Noose," "Ty Cobb," and "Blow Up the Outside World," but it is far from a great album. King Animal reminds me a lot of Down on the Upside, except after a few listens, I don't know if I hear a KNOCK OUT song.
The Soundgarden of Badmotorfinger (1991's immaculate beastly post-Black Flag GRUNGE) is something that will never come around again of course because the music one makes as a young person can't be recaptured. Neither will the psychedelic metal crossover of Superunknown (1994) be something this reincarnated 'garden will be able to achieve. So, what are we to make of King Animal? How does it fit in to the overall story? Two things have to be stated right off the bat: 1) the album cover is ugly as shit 2) "Been Away Too Long" is a terrible song. The guys in Soundgarden are definitely guilty of making some poor decisions post break-up (TWO greatest hits comps??? WTF), but as I listen to King Animal, I hear some great new music...and I'm kinda shocked. Actually, the album as a whole might be better than Upside, or at least its more consistent from beginning to end.
"Non-State Actor," "Bones of Birds," and the heavy (and fantastic) "Blood on the Valley Floor" remind me of the best aspects of Soundgarden's sound. The songs balance big bass/drum groove space with Cornell's trademark opera-sludge voice and Thayil's lead guitar never trades on empty shredding because he finds the hallucinations in solos and rides them to the deepest parts of the unknown. The band adds a few surprises as well, like a horn section breaking through the din at the end of "Black Saturday." Cornell, sadly, does remind us of his shitty solo albums with the schmaltz ballad "Halfway There," which is close to being one of the worst songs Soundgarden has put out, but fortunately the majority of this album is good.
Bottom line: Soundgarden are back with a quality collection of songs that won't embarrass them (or fans) and even if they fail to reach the heights of their peak work, they add to their catalog a few tunes that can sound right at home on stage with the classics.