Release Date: Nov 13, 2012
Record label: Republic
"I got nowhere to go ever since I came back," Chris Cornell growls over a warped-alloy guitar charge on "Been Away Too Long," the lead single from the first Soundgarden album since 1996. He's singing about Seattle, about coming home after years away and feeling out of place in his own hometown. He's also talking about a sound: the grunge his band helped define, and which once dominated rock's mainstream.
SOUNDGARDEN play an intimate show Friday (November 16) at the Phoenix. See listing. Rating: NNNN Questioned in interviews about a potential Soundgarden reunion over the past decade and a half, Chris Cornell maintained a hard-line stance: no chance. Citing the risk of "tarnishing their legacy," he preferred to leave the band in the annals of the Seattle grunge explosion and focus on his own pursuits.
When Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell unveiled his Timbaland-produced R&B solo album three years ago, he insisted that reuniting the 90s grunge kings would risk "tarnishing their legacy". However, with baffled fans mostly of the opinion that the grunge icon's crunk opus did just that, Soundgarden are indeed back. Still, their first new album since 1996 makes a surprisingly good fist of plugging back into the sound that made them the moodiest and heaviest of the Seattle grunge bands: anvil-heavy riffs, crunching collisions of punk and hard rock, and psychedelic explorations.
First new album in 16 years? Here's what we made of it... Soundgarden’s first album in 16 years might actually be some listeners’ first encounter with the Seattle foursome – but fortunately, they’ve always been renowned as songwriters as much as grunge icons. While the band hinted at a heavier sound before its release, ‘King Animal’ doesn’t hit as hard as their really early material, but it’s well-paced, so slower songs like ‘Blood On The Valley’ and acoustic-led tracks like ‘Halfway There’ don’t drag.
Let’s put this into context. When Soundgarden split up, in April 1997, their demise was announced by Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. John Major’s government was still dragging its fetid, bleeding corpse around Westminster. The music press still had some relevance.
When grunge thudded and thundered onto the sludgy scene in the late 1980s, the music world was a different place. Sub Pop was pioneering the sound of the new genre that took influence from heavy metal and punk and that served as a simultaneously angsty and apathetic reaction to mindless pop pervading the airwaves at the time. So even though Sub Pop is putting out fluffy Fleet Foxes records these days and the Pacific Northwest is now more recognized for hipster humor heralded by Portlandia, rather than as a hotbed for hardcore, in some ways, not much has changed in 15 years since Soundgarden released its last album.
In the 16 years since Soundgarden’s last outing, both music consumers and critics have shifted their tastes on a fundamental level, such that the kind of portentous rock music that made the Seattle quartet one of the biggest successes of the grunge era is now considered indefensibly gauche. Even a cursory glance at the modern rock charts—dominated by the likes of Fun. , Mumford & Sons, and Gotye—makes it clear that Soundgarden’s lasting influence on contemporary artists has been negligible, begging the question of precisely who, in 2012, was clamoring for King Animal, the band’s comeback album.
A few weeks ago a friend and I were browsing through Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart—as we are wont to do—and acquainting ourselves with what the kids these days are listening to (this is indeed how I keep entertained—I am a music critic, after all). We were confounded to discover that American modern rock radio has been inundated with faceless Mumford & Sons soundalikes, late-coming (and lackluster) major label Arcade Fire wannabes, and Alex Care’s insufferable “Too Close”. The sense of adventurousness and excitement (not to mention a healthy dose of out-and-out rocking out) found in abundance during the format’s 1990s golden age was all but absent; instead, we were faced with a chart crowded with dull, unoffensive tracks that were more carefully concocted commercial jingles than proper songs, with nary a gritty guitar tone or expression of genuine anger or angst in evidence.
Chris Cornell’s ill-advised Timbaland-assisted foray into R&B on 2009’s ‘Scream’ may have had you praying desperately for him to bring back Soundgarden, but grunge’s mightiest reunion is an exercise in perhaps leaving the past in the past. In many ways it’s madly impressive, but it’s just a bit saggy. ‘Been Away For Too Long’ is clattering, rugged and alive, and a lot better than the inelegant Avengers Assemble theme tune ‘Live To Rise’ the Seattle legends released in April this year.
Soundgarden couldn’t have picked a more literal title than “Been Away Too Long” to kick off their first new album in 16 years, King Animal. For 12 of those 16 years, the band was officially broken up, with Kim Thayil spending his time collaborating with Jello Biafra and Sunn0))), Matt Cameron drumming for Pearl Jam and Ben Shepherd working with Mark Lanegan. Chris Cornell, for his part, pursued a solo career to various degrees of success and failure, starting off strong with Euphoria Morning before delivering a baffling set of Timbaland-produced pop titled Scream, which was enough for even the most ardent fan to beg for a reunion with his former bandmates.
Of all the grunge bands that went multi-platinum in the 1990s, Soundgarden pulled it off with the least amount of drama or fall-out. No antagonistic relationships with the media, no publicized addictions, no scandals, no suicides. Their legacy is instead one of hard work, perseverance, and pragmatism; after all, Soundgarden had already embraced the benefits of signing to a major label several years before Kurt Cobain had developed a self-loathing attitude about doing the same.
“Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” tweeted Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell on New Year’s Day 2010 — a six-word table scrap that nearly three years later has grown into a full-fledged banquet for a once-starving fan base. Since Cornell’s #newyearsresolution, ravenous Soundgarden fans have feasted on a North American tour, two new compilations, and the occasional fresh slab of music. And now, after 16 years of salivating, Soundgarden’s “knights” finally have the chance to satisfy their hunger with a new full-length album, King Animal.
The 90s child inside me, weaned on Q101 and Beavis and Butthead, had high hopes for this album: a stunning return from the only one of Seattle’s big four to make a graceful exit with all its players intact. A completely different part of me — the grown-up, too-cool-for-school reviewer of SERIOUS INDEPENDENT MUSIC — was praying for a good faceplant, a flaming 10-car pileup that would make Chris Cornell’s Scream seem like a good idea in retrospect. Neither corner of my being is walking away from King Animal feeling completely satisfied.
Gloriously elemental, overblown and blessed with the ability to ride a groove the size of the Pacific with a deft primal touch, Soundgarden have always been a band out of step with their eternal 'grunge' tag. Rather, their (now fully canonised) trio of 90's albums – Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down on the Upside – relied on clefty Sabbathian bludgeon, kaleidoscopic Zeppelinite histrionics and an eerie Beatlesesqe melodic bent – a winning combination that remains as stoically enticing now as two decades ago. Of course, punk appeared too (on their earlier 80s material, particularly) – but to a far lesser degree than many of their Seattle compadres.
Soundgarden split acrimoniously after the 1996 release of Down On the Upside, but they always seemed a band ripe for reunion, and not just because Chris Cornell flailed through his new-millennial solo career. Soundgarden always seemed a band built for the long haul, destined to have their love of '70s metal roots overtake their punk roots. That's what happened with their 1994 breakthrough, Superunknown, and that's where Soundgarden return on their 2012 reunion King Animal, acting like nothing -- not even the murky Down On the Upside -- happened in the ensuing 18 years.
CHRISTINA AGUILERA “Lotus” (RCA). Christina Aguilera is one of the most powerful singers of her generation; is a friend to raunch, and an expert at making it broadly palatable; never lets tabloids get the best of her; has made it safe for still relevant midcareer pop stars to take sabbaticals ….
A superb comeback, 16 years after their last studio LP, from the big-riffed Seattle band. Luke Turner 2012 Of all the bands emerging in a blur of rain, greasy hair and plaid from the Pacific Northwest during the early- to mid-90s, Soundgarden have arguably been the most poorly served by posterity. Kurt Cobain sealed Nirvana’s legend with a shotgun blast, while the likes of Mudhoney kept their underground credibility intact by lying relatively low.
For several years, Mr. James Osterberg Jr., better known as Iggy Pop, represented the gold standard in rudderless solo careers. That was until Soundgarden broke up. Iggy’s transgressions prior to reuniting the Stooges were numerous: every note of his ’80s output; unironic attempts at Rat Pack-style crooning; Kate Pierson.
After 16 years and various solo projects Soundgarden are back with ‘King Animal’. It’s therefore altogether appropriate that they open with the blistering ‘Been Away For Too Long’ where crushing riffs and the enduringly powerful vocals of Cornell place the listener in familiar territory. This strong start is cemented with the politically-tinged ‘Non-State Actor’ which harnesses the wordplay of veteran guitarist Kim Thayil.Elsewhere the contemplative ‘Bones Of Birds’ impresses with its potent blend of clever lyrics, well judged use of effects and vocal layering.
How angry were you in 1997? If your answer is, “Not very” or “I was 3,” there’s a chance you’ll be unimpressed with Soundgarden’s first album in more than 15 years. But if you were an undulating ocean of angst in 1997 and subsequently shattered by Soundgarden’s premature end, King Animal is like opening a portal to a time and place for which you probably never thought you’d be nostalgic. Picking up precisely where 1996’s Down On The Upside left off, King Animal is both radio-friendly and vaguely experimental with chugging riffs, challenging rhythms and layered production that (intentionally or not) evoke ’90s sensibility far more than any VH1 retrospective ever could.