(Seven Four Entertainment/Republic)
The last time Soundgarden made an album, grunge was still a thing people could talk about without rolling their eyes. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, who dragged their dying careers into the ‘00s as both shame and relevance dwindled, the Seattle quartet was at the top of its game when it called it quits not long after the release of 1996’s ‘Down on the Upside.’
Since then, singer Chris Cornell hooked up with three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave, released a head-scratching solo album with hip-hop producer Timbaland and recorded what may be the worst James Bond theme song ever. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bass player Ben Shepherd kicked around in some indie projects. And the drummer joined Pearl Jam.
After some reunion shows and a song on ‘The Avengers’ soundtrack, ‘King Animal,’ Soundgarden’s first album in 16 years and sixth overall, sounds like it’s ready for the inevitable grunge revival. The band comes out hard, thrashing and swinging on ‘Been Away Too Long’ like it not only has something to prove to skeptics but also like the past decade and a half was filled with way too many compromises.
You can hear their pent-up aggression, drive and ultimate release in songs like ‘Non-State Actor,’ ‘By Crooked Steps’ and ‘Attrition,’ all of which sound like they could have been recorded back when ‘Friends’ was a Top 5 TV show.
But like even the best Soundgarden albums (1991’s ‘Badmotorfinger,’ 1994’s ‘Superunknown’), ‘King Animal’ relies more on strung-together riffs and muddy grooves than any real sense that they’re in control of all the noise they’re making. Cornell’s howls from hell are as larynx-shredding impressive as ever, and Thayil tears off some mighty guitar solos throughout, but too often ‘King Animal’ is weighed down by its heaviness. There are a few tweaks to the classic Soundgarden pattern (modern-day studio tricks show up once in a while, as do some exotic-sounding instruments), but for the most part the band isn’t too interested in reshaping its legacy on ‘King Animal.’ This is about reclaiming, by any means necessary, the title of the grungiest of the grunge, and they’re damned if they don’t.