Album Review: ‘King Animal’ has its moments, but its too domesticated to be as compelling as the band’s 90’s output.
When the newly reunited Soundgarden announced they were recording their new album King Animal, it sparked much anticipation. It’s been 16 years since singer Chris Cornell, Guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron recorded Down On The Upside.
And then…we heard Live To Rise, off The Avengers soundtrack. It sounded nothing like their bottom heavy rock of old, and more like the worst elements of Cornell’s solo work. Would the new album King Animal be just as listless?
First the good news: the album doesn’t have one track as weak as Rise. But that doesn’t let the band totally off the hook.
The opener Been Away Too Long is standard issue hard rock. Soundgarden were many things, but generic isn’t one of them. And the lyrics of reconnecting to his former city and band (“Going straight/I only ever really wanted a break/
I’ve been away for too long”), are too obvious for Cornell, a talented lyricist who’s best work is rich in metaphor and stays away from clichés.
The follow-up track Non-State Actor also feels a bit by the numbers. And Cornell’s voice sounds strained here, but given his age and the coarsening of his pipes over the years, he can be forgiven for not hitting all the high notes like in his 20’s.
As the album progresses things pick up. By Crooked Steps conjures elements of the dark introspective psychedelia off Superunknown, albeit not as dense. And the song is anchored by powerful drumming from the always excellent Matt Cameron.
Blood On The Valley Floor is one of the better tracks, suggesting the dark sonic churn of Searching With My Good Eye Close off their landmark album BadMotorFinger.
The following song Bones Of Birds is a stirring reflection by Cornell on parenthood and mortality , and concludes with guitarist Kim Thayil’s conjuring a flock of birds with his squalling guitar lines. It easily has the most memorable melody of the album.
Taree follows in the same plodding vein as “Valley Floor” but to less dramatic effect. And the track Attrition sounds more like an afterthought than a fully invested piece of work.
Black Saturday is an interesting fusion of acoustic verses and a heavier horn driven chorus, which suggests Drawing Flies off BadMotorFinger.
Halfway There sounds more like Cornell’s solo work, and it’s the poppiest thing on the album. I have to think Kim Thayil was rolling his eyes when Cornell played the demo (although it does have a catchy hook).
No, King Animal’s best track comes late in the album with Worse Dreams. Bassist Ben Shepherd’s funky bass line references both Curtis Mayfield’s Pusher Man and Sugarloaf’s Green Eyed Lady and makes for a compelling groove.
The album concludes with Rowing, anchored by Cornell’s chain gang chorus “Don’t know where I’m going, I just keep on rowing, I just keep on pulling, gotta row“.
Those lyrics fit a band who seem less focused and pointed than before.
But the biggest fault with this album is the flat production. Adam Kasper doesn’t have the deft touch of past producers Terry Date and Michael Beinhorn.
It sounds like he’s sanded off all the rough edges. But rough edges are what make Soundgarden interesting. This seems counterintuitive and leaves King Animal sounding unsure of itself, constantly pulling its punches.
The album isn’t bad. But it’s not great either. There isn’t anything as sonically rude ala Ultramega Ok or Louder Than Love, or as texturally rich ala BadMotorFinger and Superunknown. Even Down On The Upside, the lopsided album that hastened the end of the band had more of a cohesive identity than this album.
Perhaps more time touring together will result in a stronger future effort. Until then fans can at least be happy the band is back and with future potential. In an era of Call Me Maybe and Gangham Style, the world needs Soundgarden more than ever.
You can preview/order the album ‘King Animal‘ on iTunes or Amazon at the links below.
[amazon_image id=”B009YU62H2″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]King Animal[/amazon_image]
And here’s a recent Rolling Stone interview with the band.
You might also want to check out my Deftones review.