Soundgarden release their first album in 16 years on Tuesday with something to prove, and the resulting King Animal raises and answers just as many questions as you’d think. Do they still rock? Do their technical, odd-time riffs still stack up with today’s underground rock scene that’s pushed the limits of complexity and abrasiveness? How’s Cornell’s voice these days? Are they going to just re-hash the same shit they played in the 1990’s and expect us to like it? The answer to the last one is thankfully a resounding “no,” while the others all live in a gray area.
Opener and lead single “Been Away Too Long” encapsulates nearly all of those answers. First of all, the message is clearly a reflection on their extended hiatus and present status as a band, as well as on the present state of rock music: [LISTEN]
Hey, no one knows me
No one saves me
No one loves me or hates me
I’ve been away for too long
This back-from-the-dead diatribe is then screamed by Chris Cornell, whose pipes still hold up, yet at the same time sound annoyingly dated; this is less due to Soundgarden being from the 80’s, and more because he’s yowled for an endless stream of chart-topping bands in the meantime, including Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and his solo material. His distinctive belting has had its day in the sun too many times, and it has gotten old – his vocal mannerisms are cliche at this point. Even when they work.
“Been Away Too Long” also represents where the rest of the band stands today. They cling a little too much to power chord radio-rock both on this song and the rest of the album, and it’s not helped by the ultra-clean production, which makes power chords sound less distorted and even more boring. They shine most when they avoid power-chord riffs and radio formulas, like they do on the ode-to-sludge-metal “Blood on the Valley Floor” or the Khamaj-raga-for-white-people “A Thousand Days Before.”
Of course, a comeback album wouldn’t be complete without at least some re-hashing of the hits. “Bones of Birds” takes everything that worked in both “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days” and throws in some Alice In Chains harmonies for good measure. The intro of “Black Saturday” aims for the major-chord peppiness of “Burden in My Hand,” but soon evolves into a more progressive darker song, showing that they aren’t content to remain stagnant. At least not intentionally.
All in all, it seems like King Animal is equal parts these ingredients: a.) everything that made you love Soundgarden the first time around, b.) some new musical territory for them, taking influence from outside their grunge and sludge-metal roots and c.) fillers, gimmicks, and a few tired/out-of-date formulas. While the last ingredient may be harsh, it would be almost non-existent if they just dropped a couple songs. “Taree” is boring, “Attrition” is tacky, and “Halfway There” is pointless, especially in its observational poignancy:
If you’ve got a car and somewhere to sleep
Someone who loves you and something to eat
I’d say you’re doing better than most
But maybe not as well as some
Soundgarden are kicking off decades of dust on this album, so we’ll cut them some slack. They don’t stretch the boundaries of rock anymore, so they can’t quite compete with other leading bands. They aren’t as progressive as Grammy-winning The Mars Volta, as genre-stretching as Radiohead, or as odd-time technical as CSI‘s The Dillinger Escape Plan. Still, it’s far better than any other rock you’ll hear on the radio. But that’s not saying very much.