Monday, 19 November 2012

Soundgarden - King Animal (album review)

Indulge me for a moment in a trip down memory lane.  I think any of us interested in this album will be in that neighborhood anyway.  Soundgarden was the first band that I liked.  Not my uncles, not my brother, not my parents or friends.  They were my band.  I saw the music video for "Rusty Cage" and I took a chance and decided to like them without peer approval.  It was a pivotal moment that set the tone for my future.  I thought they had a tough, edgy sound and they were heavy, which was a pre-requisite.  I was too embarrassed to talk the band up though, because I thought the name sounded kind of weak and girly with that 'garden' in there.  Then 'Superunknown' came out and that (along with Stone Temple Pilots 'Purple') was my Grade 7.  Point is, I'll always have that special affinity for Soundgarden, after all, they are my band.

Needless to say, I had some expectations going in.  I was expecting maybe two or three ragers like the lead single "Been Away Too Long", but nowhere near as exciting, and a couple ballads with a lot of middle of the road pop fare.  Not because that's what Soundgarden is known for, but because I was sorely disappointed with 'Down on the Upside' and with Chris Cornell's solo stuff (probably just because it wasn't Soundgarden-y, rather than judging it on its own merit) ... and well, life is just usually disappointing isn't it?

I was struck how genuinely Soundgarden this album is, how they managed to pick things up after some 16 years without missing a beat is remarkable.  Actually, my first impression was that they picked up right where 'Badmotorfinger' left off, much as I loved 'Superunknown' when it came out, I realized with hindsight how much of a departure the album really was.  I initially thought that this is probably the album 'Superunknown' should have been.  As I kept listening however, I realized just how post-'Down on the Upside' this really was.

One can see how I got the wrong impression as the first three tracks are deceptively heavy.  "By Crooked Steps" in particular has that 'Badmotofinger' feel to it, with an ethereally wailing guitar floating like smoke aside a chugging, churning bass line atop a solid and funky beat with plenty of splash.  "Black Saturday" is the most 'Superunknown-ish' song, starting out as a nice acoustic piece that ramps up to a heavy down tempo showcase of the band's darker side.  The song even nearly directly quotes from that album on guitar during the later verses and there are other touches of 'Badmotorfinger' as well, particularly with the horns in the chorus.  This could have been the defining moment of the album, right there when the horns kick in, blending various elements of the 91-94 era together seamlessly, but it isn't.

But as the album plays on and the momentum gained on the first three tracks is relentlessly tripped up by slower songs like "Bones of Birds" (which is a song I know other people like) and light weight fare such as "Halfway There", I began to realize this was not the return to the golden age I was hoping for.  To be fair though, there's not a lot of these kind of songs and most of the slower ones are more dark than slow, as are the slower moments on 'Superunknown'.  "Rowing" is one that reminds me of the good parts of 'Down on the Upside' album with its more experimental composition, it's a good song with a catchy vocal melody that 'Down on the Upside' would have been well served to feature.

I may be giving the wrong impression here.  I don't dislike this album.  There are some great moments spread throughout the album, particularly on the first half of the record.  Why?  Because these are the heavier, more uptempo moments that I was looking forward to hearing.  John Garcia said it all about slow songs in "Thong Song".

Long story short, the album largely met my somewhat low expectations but it rocks just a bit more than I was expecting in places and I'm happy about that.  Not everybody is going to dig every moment on this album, but there are plenty of memorable moments here, particularly some hooks that will get caught in your head such as in "Eyelids Mouth" and "Rowing".  The more rocking moments on the album come courtesy of the lead single "Been Away Too Long", "Attrition", "By Crooked Steps" and "Blood on the Valley Floor" among arguably a few others.  Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Sheppard are in fine vintage form.  Drummer Matt Cameron holds this thing together and toughens up the band's ethereal sound with his solid backbeat, which won't come as news to longtime fans.  He always gives a song a little more than what it needs to get by, stepping it up from being good to being memorable.  And Chris Cornell often gets back to that hard to emulate strained-voice / raspy style of singing that fans know and love.  It's those moments where they stray from those aspects that I find disappointing.

I guess Chris Cornell said it best when he sings, tellingly, the very first lines on the album "You can't go home, no I swear you never can."

In total, there are more "Been Away Too Long"s (rager) than "Halfway There"s (middle-of-the-road pop).  But perhaps a few too many of the latter for comfort.

It's hard to accept an album on its own merits rather than comparing it to what's come before from a band you've known and loved a long time.  An album should be judged on its own merits, this one has its fair share, but after a few spins I'm starting to feel like this is the kind of album where I'll pick out a few songs here and there rather than play the album straight through over and over.  King Animal is a good album but I wonder if I'm judging this thing on its own merits or if I was just too excited that there was new Soundgarden and instead of 'allowing' the band to age gracefully, I hammered them down under the weight of my own expectations.  I guess I expect a little too much from Soundgarden.

After all, they are my band.

Highlights include: "Been Away Too Long" and "Blood on the Valley Floor"

Rating: 3.5/5

From: Seattle, Washington

Genre: Hard Rock, Grunge, Psychedelic, Metal, Punk

Reminds me of: Down on the Upside, Superunknown, hints of Badmotorfinger and Audioslave.

1). Been Away Too Long (3:36)
2). Non-State Actor (3:57)
3). By Crooked Steps (4:00)
4). A Thousand Days Before (4:23)
5). Blood On The Valley Floor (3:48)
6). Bones of Birds (4:22)
7). Taree (3:38)
8). Attrition (2:52)
9). Black Saturday (3:29)
10). Halfway There (3:16)
11). Worse Dreams (4:53)
12). Eyelids Mouth (4:39)
13). Rowing (5:06)
Total Run Time: 51:59

Release Date: November 13, 2012

Suggested listening activity for fellow non-stoners: Trying to forget all the embarrassing shit you said and did in high school while maintaining the myth that you were one of the cool ones.


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