Given their pedigree of punk-rock roots and Pacific Northwestern gloom, grunge bands are more likely, say, than spandex’d graduates of the ’80s Sunset Strip to do some soul-searching when they feel that ol’ reunion itch coming on. So it’s no big surprise that the opening song on Soundgarden’s strong King Animal, the Seattle-bred band’s first new studio album in 16 years, finds the quartet offering some justification. Turns out that frontman Chris Cornell, guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron, and bassist Ben Shepherd are back to class up the joint. “No one here knows where the edge of the knife is / No one knows what intelligent life is,” wails Cornell on the unbridled, instructively titled opener “Been Away Too Long.”
They’ve actually been gone for exactly the right amount of time. Unlike contemporaries from Smashing Pumpkins to Alice in Chains, Soundgarden didn’t piss away any brand capital by fumbling around with gothtronica or new lineups. (Cornell’s Timbaland-produced solo debacle Scream, though….) So what you get on King Animal is, blessedly, what you remembered. “Blood on the Valley Floor” and “Non-State Actor” are reassuringly heavy — known Superunknowns. Thayil scribbles his modal guitar lines around Cornell’s off-kilter riffs, while Cameron and Shepherd make those strange time signatures flow. Meanwhile, Cornell’s voice is still a wonder, and he takes full advantage. When, on the Zeppelin-esque “By Crooked Steps” and more Sabbath-esque “Taree,” he multi-tracks his vocals — singing harmony in different octaves, inserting rock-god wails deep into the mix, uncorking chest-beating countermelodies — the effect is thrilling.
King Animal’s skeleton is also refreshingly pre-digital. Soundgarden made an album here, with all sorts of internal connections and deliberate emotional ebbs and flows. The eerie loss-of-innocence ballad “Birds of Bones” combines with “Taree” and the crushing “Attrition” to create a mid-album, mid-tempo mini-set; that combo is then followed by the softer, acoustic-based “Black Saturday” and “Halfway There.”
But, at times, the production by Adam Kasper, who co-helmed 1996’s Down on the Upside and co-engineered ’94’s Superunknown, feels a little too manicured. Thayil’s guitar tone and Cameron’s drum thump, in particular, would’ve benefited from some Louder Than Love scruff. Sonically, King Animal could stand to be a woollier beast. Occasionally, the clean consistency of sound — Thayil includes more than his share of vaguely “Eastern,” alternate-tuning lines — makes the album feel longer than its 52 minutes.
Sentimentally, though, Soundgarden are in a good spot. Lyrically, there’s no tortured depresso anthem equivalent to “Fell on Black Days” or “Jesus Christ Pose”; instead, Cornell talks of being a “walking believer” on “By Crooked Steps.” Rather than mope, he declares, “We’ll settle for a little bit more than everything” on “Non-State Actor.” And the bluesy closer “Rowing,” built on what sounds like a scuffed drum loop, offers up some tough-love wisdom: “Living is hard / But living beats losing all that we are.” Soundgarden — and the hungry, vital King Animal — are proof of that.