I’ve been trying to work out over the past 16 years why I’ve felt a massive disappointment with the genre of rock n roll music. When I look at the last 16 years the main period of time that bred the most disappointment for me was from 2000 to 2012. When I talk about rock n roll I’m referring to any guitar band in the alternative and mainstream rock arena. If you look at the last 12 year in particular, it came down to bands of the Muse ilk to give intelligent guitar music a voice in the mainstream. There was an extreme lack of darkness and intensity in the bands coming through. It was all science and wankery. A handful of bands managed to make guitar music awesome in this 12 year period the main ones being Queens Of The Stone Age, The Mars Volta, Mastodon, Baroness, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, At The Drive-In, Black Tusk, Deftones, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, High On Fire, ISIS, Mudhoney, Fu Manchu, Nebula, Korn, Melvins, Nine Inch Nails, Opeth, A Perfect Circle, Down, Tool, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Sonic Youth, System Of A Down, Team Sleep, Tomahawk, Type O Negative and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. These bands were great rock bands in a time when being a great rock band became a strange and different thing. Popular culture seemed to put a spotlight on the 60’s and 70’s throwback shtick that bands like Jet, The Strokes and Wolfmother dealt and then there was of course Muse who are all kinds of sonic yuckness. The band who I yearned for most during this period of time was Soundgarden. The supergroup trilogy of albums that Audioslave gave us filled a hole and put Chris Cornell in a new musical relationship and although I was quite a passionate supporter of the band, it just wasn’t Soundgarden. In 2010, hope and a new light started to shine when for the first time in 13 years Soundgarden re-united to play a one off show and to kick start the legacy. The reunion was a slow moving animal and after some confusing solo years from Chris Cornell it was a welcomed sign to see the powerhouse combo of Kim Thayil, Chris Cornell, Matt Cameron and Ben Sheppard back together playing music as Soundgarden. The question on everyone’s lips though, was the newly re-united Soundgarden going to make a new album. After an expansive anthology and a long overdue live album the band announced their plans to record and release a new album. This was truly right on news.
In early 2012 we got the first taste of new Soundgarden music with the song “Live to Rise” which was featured on the Avengers soundtrack. As outlined by the band, this was a family friendly version of the Soundgarden sound. I personally loved the song and it had all the ingredients of a great Soundgarden song. Was this song a glimpse of what was to come on their first full length album in 16 years? No, it most certainly was not.
So after a few more months the album title is finally announced, King Animal, and the cover art is revealed. A bunch of youtube preview videos and the debut of the lead single “Been Away Too Long” and the hype for the album is reaching fever pitch. Why is the release of this album such a significant event? The only way I can answer this is by saying that after a lack of leadership in the mainstream alternative rock landscape, it was an exciting prospect to see one of the pioneers of the genre making a return. This album, for me at least, was not about setting the indie or experimental music worlds on fire but rather it was a chance for the art of rock n roll to once again be given a shining light and have a band as deep and dark as Soundgarden once again at the forefront. It was a chance to see if the band was still able to provide some kind of relevance instead of drifting into sentimental musings of the past. In short, was it the logical next step creatively for Soundgarden? The answer to this question is a very loud yes.
The album is the perfect new beginning and also picks up beautifully where “Down On The Upside” left us in 1996. The album showcases all of the elements of the Soundgarden sound that made them so incredibly unique in the world of rock music. Over the course of the 13 track album the band shows a commitment to the future while also reminding us why we fell in love with them originally. Like every Soundgarden album before it, King Animal has its own unique mood that is deep and dark, heavy and mellow and very psychedelic.
The opening trifecta of tracks, “Been Away Too Long,” “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps,” launch the King Animal vehicle at full steam. These three tracks are full of the riffy punch and strong melodic structure that made the band the most godhead band of the 90’s. Full of heavenly riffs and shifting time signatures this is the perfect opening for the new era of riff and the ever evolving vocal prowess of Chris Cornell adds to the haunting mood of these muscular numbers.
Flowing on from this trilogy of riffery is the Country and Eastern sounds of “A Thousand Days Before” and the first tasty diversion into the kind of psychedelic landscapes the band have been crafting for well over 28 years and the first reminder of how much we’ve missed a guitar hero like Kim Thayil in the modern landscape. An simple song based around a middle eastern sounding guitar riff that peaks with maximum mood overload by the end of the track courtesy of some layered Cornell howls and that dirgy Ben Sheppard bottom end. If we needed any more reminders about the importance of Kim Thayil than the next track “Blood On The Valley Floor” should be the best sales pitch for just why his sludgy riffs are as important to heavy riff rock as any Iommisims. Nothing fancy with this track, just some simple sludge framed with a more bluesy vocal delivery.
Since “Superunknown” each Soundgarden album has managed to have a moody centrepiece courtesy of Chris Cornell and “Bones Of Birds” is a clear demonstration of musical maturity and the pop styling’s of the darker moments that existed in the Beatles discography. This song offers a grown up perspective on angst and the new kind of dramas and fears plaguing the mood of Chris Cornell. The darkest moment on the album and the most glorious rock n roll chorus heard anywhere in the past ten years and the perfect seed to help the next track “Taree” take full flight. “Taree” is my favourite track on the new album and it’s got that perfect mix of late afternoon black dog and rock n roll muscle. We truly have missed the unique collision of chords that Ben Sheppard combines to make rock n roll and is most certainly a follow up single contender. “Attrition” follows and helps bring side one to a triumphant close with a stooges proto-punk flavour.
The second side of King Animal begins with the ambient acoustic number “Black Saturday” which has a bridge that deserves to go for a lot longer, it’s my only criticism of King Animal, that bridge should be five minutes longer, but the discipline and maturity of the bands songwriting realistically lets it hang around for as long as it has to. “Halfway There” was an initial head scratcher when I first heard it. A Cornell penned number that sounds like his “Carry On” era solo material, but played by Soundgarden, has FM radio hit written all over it. It was the track I thought could weaken what had been such a strong step forward. Repeated listens help give relevance and currency to this track and it puts a new spin on the ballads that “Down On The Upside” started to offer us.
The breathing room that “Halfway There” provides is erased with a hurricane pace when the Pink Floyd via Zeppelin rock stomp of “Worse Dreams” explodes through the speakers. Another Cornell penned number that gives rise to what I’m predicting will be another classic Soundgarden single. It comes and goes too quickly but opens up into the closing tracks of King Animal with just the right amount of experimentation. “Eyelids Mouth” is classic Matt Cameron song writing and has a weird funk vibe swirling round the riff and vocal interplay. A guest spot from Mike McCready helps drive the song home bringing us to the final track “Rowing.”
The looped bass line and gang vocals provide a haunting soundscape like track that explodes into full band rock n roll freakouts with swirling layers of vocals that help propose the question of just where is the band going to go next. It’s the perfect ending to the first new collection of Soundgarden music since 1996.
The album begs for repeated listens and is one of the first albums that I’ve heard in the past 12 years that actually opens up and shows more of itself with every listen. The band has boycotted the download culture of now and has crafted an album in its purest sense. Each new listen teaches you something new and every new encounter encourages a new favourite song. For the sentimental, the album has the repeat affect that “Superunknown” was funded on. It leans on the rock n roll muscle of the bands early days but is progressive in its execution. King Animal is the sound of vital rock n roll in 2012. It showcases a band that has taken an evolutionary leap into the next phase of their career and is a much welcomed and a long overdue come back.
I’ve seen various rock magazines proclaim King Animal as the “Return of the Kings” and although this has an air of corniness to it, I must admit after living with this album for the past few weeks I am a believer in this notion. They have reclaimed the crown and rightfully so. Soundgarden are my version of the perfect rock n roll band and to have them back is a blessing and is inspiring a happiness and love of the art of rock n roll that I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. This is future angst for those of us who have crossed over and learnt how to become successful and grounded adults and that is more intense and meaningful than the anything modern youth culture has to offer.
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