It’s been 16 years since the last Soundgarden studio album and, as might be expected, the level of anticipation that awaits King Animal is high. However the band that released the career highs of Louder Than Love and Badmotorfinger is long gone. This collection of highly polished but poorly conceived songs suggests that the band have forgotten what made them great.
As if Soundgarden’s return wasn’t already heralded clearly enough, they opt to kick off with Been Away Too Long. It’s a statement that initially might be greeted with agreement; post King Animal however, it may be concluded that the band might have left it a bit longer. Just in case anybody is any doubt as to what Soundgarden used to sound like, they retool old favourite My Wave, rename it and take it for a spin. It’s all a bit too clean and tidy, and although it hints at the days when the band warranted the plaudits, it sounds like they’re going through the motions.
King Animal is unmistakably a Soundgarden album, and all the elements that should make for a great record are here. Matt Cameron’s innovate and articulate drumming remains, Chris Cornell’s voice may not be quite as powerful as it once was, but there’s no mistaking those familiar roars and screams. Kim Thayil’s guitar playing still occupies that peculiar wonky Sabbath meets Eastern flavour it once did too, but a paucity of ideas, heavy handed production, and a lack of the vigour that drove songs like Jesus Christ Pose or Loud Love means that this is an album that doesn’t hit the heights it should.
Non State Actor’s intricate riffing soon heads in to a cul-de-sac of tedium. By Crooked Steps’ tight rhythmic thunder initially impresses but in never letting up, it never really goes anywhere. Elsewhere there’s the sludgecaked monotony of Blood On The Valley Floor, a song whose grinding riffing is offset by a polished production that knocks all the edges off and muffles the guitar tone terribly. Attrition sums up the feeling of making it to the mid point of the album, but does at least attempt to up the ante somewhat by aping the punkier moments of Queens Of The Stone Age. Black Saturday’s mystical meandering acoustic strum features Cornell crooning the words “Burn out any memory of me ever breathing” which is pretty tempting. Worse Dreams at least features an amazing riff that snakes and smoulders beautifully but falters once the chorus hits and Cornell starts banging on about his dreams. Eyelids Mouth is sadly not about the most bizarre plastic surgery since The Human Centipede. Instead, what starts off as a list of mouth/ocular oddities turns into a directionless eco-friendly jam about water running out. “Who let the river run dry” asks Cornell with the kind of concern that accompanied that most famous of questions: “Who let the dogs out?”
They finish the album with Rowing, and Cornell paddling about in ever decreasing circles on ever rising water, which should at least keep his concerns about water levels on Eyelids Mouth under control. Much like the frantically paddling Cornell, Soundgarden don’t seem to know where they are going. Many of these songs set off with grand intentions before spiralling around like a boat with no compass.
There are a couple of moments where the Soundgarden of old shine through though. A Thousand Days finds the band engaging in those hoary old Led Zeppelin influences and utilising those mystic tones that occasionally would flavour their songs. Here, Cornell is on song, and the band flow perfectly slipping across dynamic ranges with ease. Similarly, Bones Of Birds is a slow burning, creeping ballad that takes time to appreciate, but once its intricacies are fully explored, it’s right up there with former glories like Black Hole Sun.
Soundgarden were good because they sounded dirty and they filtered Led Zep and Sabbath through a grimy rag. Much of the problem with King Animal lies with the production, which polishes every rough edge off. The demos included with the deluxe edition find the band sounding invigorated and apparently enjoying themselves again. Worse Dreams for example sounds genuinely creepy and Cornell’s voice has that rasping edge that blessed Soundgarden’s early albums. The stripped back version of Black Saturday works better than the thin tuneless version on the album, while the harsher edges of Crooked Steps allow for Cornell’s vocals to cut through and give the guitars a serrated aggressive feel that just isn’t there on the finished product. King Animal would have been better had it foregone the regal pretensions and just stuck to being a feral beast. There was clearly the makings of a decent album here, but somewhere along the line it’s all gone wrong.