“I’ve been away for too long” seems an appropriate statement with which to open up your first album in sixteen years, and on their new release, “King Animal” (out earlier this week), Soundgarden remind us just why this statement is so true and why we are glad to have them back. There were fears of course that this would turn out to be just another mid-life, need-the-dough cash-in, which would indelibly ruin the reputation of one of the most respected alternative rock acts of the grunge era. The purists should be pleased, however, because ‘King Animal’ sees Soundgarden returning to their former glory, picking up as if they had never left off.
You want heavy, snaking riffs? You got ‘em. You want soaring, impassioned vocals? You got that too. You want songs that twist and turn through time signatures and rhythms like a switchback through a mountain pass? Well guess what folks; it’s Soundgarden and they’re back, and they’re just as good as you remember ‘em! There really is no great need to reinvent yourself when in fact your music still sounds fresh and invigorating, standing out from much of today’s rock simply because there is nothing that really sounds like it around at the moment.
From the album’s opener and lead off single, “Been Away too Long”, it’s clear that Soundgarden mean business. Powerful and spirited with a bluesy, retro riff as thick as your mum’s custard, the tone is set for the rest of the album. “Non State Actor” continues with Zeppelin funkiness and yet another stunning riff from guitarist Kim Thayil, “A Thousand Days Before” has psychedelic overtones, and “Bones of Birds “ has a mournful beauty in the angularity of its chord changes a la “Black Hole Sun”. There’s even a hint of pop with “Halfway There” sounding like Jellyfish on steroids. All through the musicianship is first rate, as it always was before, and Chris Cornell’s voice is both rich in tone and raw in emotion and power.
Soundgarden always were a slightly different species in the genus that was grunge. They weren’t and aren’t punk like Nirvana, nor organic and earnest like Pearl Jam. Their songs and riffs are crafted; woven knowingly from potent single threads that produce an intricate but mountainous tapestry of sonic color.
“King Animal” opens by telling us they’ve been away too long, and closes by telling us, they “Don’t know where I’m going/I just keep on rowing.” Soundgarden may not yet know what lies ahead, but so long as they don’t disappear for another sixteen years and keep making music as strong as this, the rock world will be a better place for it. That much is certain.
Here is the band performing on David Letterman earlier this week.