What’s “too long” in rock and roll?
I suspect 16 years would likely qualify, but Soundgarden doesn’t sound like they missed a beat in the past decade and a half without releasing any new material.
King Animal, the band’s first album since 1996’s Down on the Upside, kicks off appropriately with the raging rocker, “Been Away Too Long.”
And, truth be told, as soon as the first words spew from Chris Cornell’s mouth – ‘you can’t go home, no/I swear you never can’ – you realize that it has truly been too long since these guys got together and jammed.
Soundgarden was always the black sheep kid brother of grunge purveyors Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They were noisy, unkempt (remember Cornell’s mane of black hair) and angrier than the more radio-friendly Seattle-area bands that broke big. I can only imagine being at one of the band’s early shows when they ripped through “Big Dumb Sex,” a visceral, almost violent anti-love song if ever there was one.
I still remember my first Soundgarden CD – a live EP of tracks off 1989’s Louder Than Love. And I bought the follow-up, 1991’s Badmotorfinger, on the day it was released. Those were the days when you would hole up in your room, headphones on, reading the liner lyrics to songs like “Rusty Cage,” “Outshined” and “Jesus Christ Pose.”
I didn’t begrudge Cornell & Co. when they finally broke in 1994 with Superunknown, their most accessible and commercial record, but I did get sick of “Black Hole Sun” after the 5,000th radio play and “Spoonman” just didn’t have the same staying power as past cuts.
Last summer, I totally geeked out when I realized that Soundgarden’s first new song since I was in my mid-20s (!) was attached to Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” and the track, “Live To Rise,” was a perfect anthem for the superhero epic. Cornell admitted in interviews that the decision was strategic – how many older bands release new material these days that fails to get the attention it deserves because mainstream radio sucks and MTV isn’t interested in promoting any band that was formed more than 6 months ago. This was an immediate opportunity to rejoin the collective music consciousness after nearly two decades away.
“Live to Rise” isn’t on King Animal, and that makes sense.
King Animal is less about a standout track and more about a pervasive feeling that permeates from its collective force. It’s almost, dare I say, a concept album. Even the strongest tracks– Been Away Too Long, Blood on the Valley Floor, A Thousand Days Before, Black Saturday – fold nicely into the larger canvas. You know how some albums, that one good song immediately stands out? This is not that album. It’s dense and rugged, like a detailed novel that doesn’t scrimp on long passages just to progress the plot.
The band’s signature sound hasn’t lost a step. If you close your eyes while listening, you’ll swear it’s 1991 all over again. Cornell’s voice is still as much a blunt instrument as Kim Thayil’s guitar or Matt Cameron’s drums. They may be older, but they haven’t lost that edge.
Even fans who liked Soundgarden’s more accessible hits like “Black Hole Sun” and “Fell on Black Days” will find something to enjoy here, particularly on tracks “Halfway There” and “Rowing”
King Animal isn’t a cash-in. It’s not a reunion for these guys to feel relevant. Soundgarden remains a vital group with something to say.