By Bill Adams
Now sixteen years after the last time Soundgarden entered the recording studio to make a new LP, there had to have been a moment when everyone needed to try and actively remember how they used to work together. How could there not have been? When Soundgarden folded up in 1997, singer Chris Cornell was beginning to indulge too much in the excesses that would dog him through most of his solo career, and the rest of the band was really beginning to feel the strain. One of the last things bassist Ben Shepherd did was throw his bass in the air just to watch it crash into the stage in Honolulu. There was, needless to say, a general sense of dissatisfaction in all of the members of Soundgarden, and they ended up really going out more with a whimper than a bang; so when the group started toying with the idea of a reformation, fans were genuinely surprised.
How would it go? Did it even have a hope of working? Maybe but, at some point, someone had to have asked this hard question:
“At what point were we happiest with where our band was musically, and would we actually be able to go back there?”
The answer to that question is embodied by King Animal, Soundgarden’s sixth studio album and the band’s first since Down On The Upside came out in 1996. The surprise is that the answer isn’t what anyone expected though; rather than going back to the forms and styles which characterized such high water albums as Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, Soundgarden has chosen to reanimate the spirits and lean, mean post-punk mechanics which lit up songs like “Flower” and “Hunted Down” as well as the full-length Louder Than Love in its entirety. After it’s running, the band tests the basic specs of their sound for thirteen tracks to see how many sparks of genius fly when thy really pour on the throttle, or if it just chokes from sixteen years of no use.
As it turns out, while the timing is a bit of grit in the gears (there’s no missing the spots of rust on Chris Cornell’s trumpet of a voice on “Non-State Actor” and “My Crooked Steps”), Soundgarden proves that they can present both the power and the fire of the sounds they made in their early SST days believably on King Animal. There are moments (like on “Blood On The Valley Floor” and “Attrition”) when they brush reasonably close to the unbridled fury of Bad Motorfinger – although the notable lack of guitar heroics keeps this album from getting too close to that one. Even so though, long-time fans will find that they’re geting a pretty solid thrill when Kim Thayil really pours on the roughness for “Been Away Too Long,” “A Thousand Days Before,” “Taree” and “Rowing,” and find that they even appreciate it when Chris Cornell finds his limits and makes his voice crack.
In those moments lie the proof that King Animal isn’t just some pale and passably competent effort designed to take hopeful fans for a few bucks – there is genuine heart in it, and that is what will win both old fans back and new fans to this record. Here’s hoping the band keeps going and doesn’t just let what they’ve got rest here; in King Animal lurks the chance of promise renewed.