King Animal (Universal Republic)
Soundgarden titled the first track on its first new album in 16 years “Been Away Too Long”, but it’s arguable that the band was away just long enough. The Seattle quartet’s original fans are old enough to be nostalgic for the grunge era, and—thanks to the fact that rock radio never took “Black Hole Sun” out of heavy rotation—a second generation has developed a passion for all things ’90s. (Okay, maybe not all things. As far as I know, no one has started an online petition to get Hammerbox back together.)
All parties will be relieved to hear that King Animal sounds just like a Soundgarden record. This is due in no small part to the fact that, because its sonic idiosyncrasies are so defining, Soundgarden can’t help but sound like Soundgarden. Kim Thayil’s riffs are in the ’70s guitar-hero mode—instant ear worms that drive songs like the Black-Sabbath-on-bath-salts rocker “By Crooked Steps”—but his solos are as unpredictably twisty as they are virtuosic. Bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron play with enough balls-out confidence that, unless you’re counting along, you’ll never notice that they routinely slip into odd time signatures.
As for singer Chris Cornell, he seems to have lost none of his ability to ignite vocal pyrotechnics. Witness his stadium-size howl on “Non-State Actor”, and how he brings it way down for the creeping psychedelia of “Bones of Birds”.
Cornell and his bandmates are at their best when they temper their classic-rock swagger with their still-untamed spirit of experimentalism. This is a balancing act that’s exceedingly difficult to get right (see Audioslave for proof), but King Animal suggests Soundgarden is as sure-footed as ever.